Damaged by Superstorm Sandy, a Fire Island Cottage is Rebuilt

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By Arlene Hirst
Damaged by Superstorm Sandy, a Fire Island cottage is rebuilt to absorb, rather than resist, 
the hit of future floods.

The old adage that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good proved to be true for Ann and Tony Spagnola. Tony, an award-winning New York graphic designer, was introduced to Fire Island when he was a student, and he and his wife spent several summers there before they moved to Larchmont to raise two sons. But the couple, who now live in Manhattan, had always loved the beach, and they finally returned to it in 2012, renting a house on the same walkway where they had stayed all those years ago—one that took them past a 1912 cottage they had often admired. They dreamed about buying it but thought it out of reach. Then came Superstorm Sandy, which devastated large parts of the Northeast, including Fire Island, and destroyed countless homes. The cottage wasn’t leveled, but its insulation sprouted mold, and the owners ripped everything down to the studs. Then, rather than face the task of rebuilding, they decided to sell at a price that reflected its haggard condition. 

The Spagnolas, who had just started house hunting, felt the cottage might have a future, in spite of appearances. Ann, an educator, was unfazed by the challenge it presented, but to be sure they weren’t crazy, the Spagnolas brought architects Peter Stamberg and Paul Aferiat, longtime friends, to see the house one autumn day and give the purchase their seal of approval. Since the couple wanted to make the house livable for the following summer, everyone got to work immediately. They all agreed that the 1,100-square-foot dwelling would not be elevated, since FEMA did not require it of existing buildings and the cost of doing so could be prohibitive. "We decided to make it water-friendly instead, so that the water could come in and go out," says Stamberg, who has been a Fire Island vacationer since the age of three and is wise to the ways of nature there.The architects specified marine-grade plywood for the floors, leaving the joints unsealed and therefore not watertight, and rigid foam for insulation, a material that’s resistant to mold. The walls are covered in Versatex, a sturdy, hydrophobic plastic, which here is painted white and rises to the height of the gable; above that, translucent multi-wall polycarbonate was installed. Perhaps most ingeniously, the wiring is run down from the ceiling rather than up from under the floor, so it remains out of reach if there’s a flood. Aside from being friends with them, the residents wanted to work with Aferiat and Stamberg because they needed designers who had a knack for using color, a talent for which the architects are known. The residents have always lived in a palette of whites; using any other hue was a momentous decision. They decided to add color, Tony says, because they wanted it to feel like a resort getaway: "It would be like going on a vacation every weekend." 

The designers were conscious of their clients’ sensibilities. The only colors they used other than black and white were derived from local flora: Yellow is taken from Seaside Goldenrod, a plant that grows in profusion on the island; Dusty Miller, another sturdy beach resident, inspired the green. For the Spagnolas, splatter-painting the floors was the greatest leap. "We couldn’t just leave the floors white; they wouldn’t wear well with all the sand that inevitably comes into the house," says Stamberg. Splatter, a technique that dates back to colonial times, seemed to be the answer—or at least an updated Jackson Pollock–style version of it. A test on paper came first to make sure it would look right. "Then when it was time to paint, it wasn’t so scary," says Ann. Painting the floor became a group activity; each participant had one color.

Damaged by Superstorm Sandy, a Fire Island Cottage is Rebuilt - Photo 1 of 6 - .In the galley-style kitchen, Ann sorts groceries into Akurum cabinets from IKEA. For the sconces, the architects selected generic porcelain sockets, then stylized them with silver-cap bulbs. 

.In the galley-style kitchen, Ann sorts groceries into Akurum cabinets from IKEA. For the sconces, the architects selected generic porcelain sockets, then stylized them with silver-cap bulbs. 

Damaged by Superstorm Sandy, a Fire Island Cottage is Rebuilt - Photo 2 of 6 - Residents Ann and Tony Spagnola sit with their architects, Peter Stamberg and Paul Aferiat, in front of the whitewashed brick fireplace in the living room. A vintage Butterfly chair joins custom sofas designed by the architects. Coffee tables by Alvar Aalto for Artek and pillows by Marimekko create a clean, Finnish-inflected environment.

Residents Ann and Tony Spagnola sit with their architects, Peter Stamberg and Paul Aferiat, in front of the whitewashed brick fireplace in the living room. A vintage Butterfly chair joins custom sofas designed by the architects. Coffee tables by Alvar Aalto for Artek and pillows by Marimekko create a clean, Finnish-inflected environment.

Damaged by Superstorm Sandy, a Fire Island Cottage is Rebuilt - Photo 3 of 6 - The all-white guest bedroom features a West Elm bed, covers by Garnet Hill, and a Tizio desk lamp by Richard Sapper for Artemide

The all-white guest bedroom features a West Elm bed, covers by Garnet Hill, and a Tizio desk lamp by Richard Sapper for Artemide

The cottage is economically furnished. For seating, Stamberg and Aferiat designed two white platform bases of birch ply set atop IKEA cabinet legs, then topped them with graphic Marimekko pillows, forming an inviting L shape. Tony made the dining table, working from an Enzo Mari DIY design published in a 1977 book by Stamberg, Instant Furniture. "It took three weekends," says Tony, and cost just $319. As the summer approached, finding dining chairs became a necessity, so they made an emergency run to IKEA, intending to replace the purchase later. But after seeing the chairs in place, everyone agreed they couldn’t be bettered. The lighting is equally simple: porcelain sockets fitted with silver-capped bulbs.The moral of the story is clear. As Aferiat says, "Interesting design can be done with strict limitations."

Damaged by Superstorm Sandy, a Fire Island Cottage is Rebuilt - Photo 4 of 6 -
Damaged by Superstorm Sandy, a Fire Island Cottage is Rebuilt - Photo 5 of 6 -

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