Take a Peek Inside a Beachside Enclave of Modernist Masterpieces

Take a Peek Inside a Beachside Enclave of Modernist Masterpieces

By Heather Corcoran
An architect's tour of Fire Island's modern beach houses offers an exclusive look inside works by Horace Gifford, Harry Bates, and Don Page.

While Long Island's south shore is well known for its stunning beaches, one seaside isle boasts another claim to fame. Fire Island—a quaint and quirky beach haven where residents travel with Radio Flyers rather than cars—has been a living trove of modern architecture since the 1960s, when architects like Horace Gifford redefined the notion of the beach house with their wood-and-glass creations. More than simple architectural statements, these houses marked a cultural sea change, drawing a who's who of New York and Hollywood elite with their adventurous designs and modest proportions, specifically in the Fire Island Pines community. 

While Fire Island boasts work by a bevy of big-name architects, this Bay Walk house from 1961 proves that the island's architectural ties run much deeper. A typical early '60s beach shack by an unknown architect, it transcends its humble origins through the meticulousness of its restoration and the modernist garden design by current owners James Streacker and Scott Ahlborn.

This month, architect Christopher Rawlins, author of Fire Island Modernist, offers design aficionados exclusive access to some of the hamlet's most stunning properties with Mid-Century Masterpieces: A Tour of Fire Island Pines. The tours take place over the course of two weekends, August 15–16 and August 22–23, and space is limited. Proceeds from ticket sales benefit Pines Modern, a forthcoming website and app that aims to "make Fire Island’s utopian architecture accessible to all."

Few architects changed the face of Fire Island as much as the midcentury master Horace Gifford. In 1975, he created this geometric glass "tree house" on Sail Walk, which sports screened vents between slanted glass walls and suspended floors that draw breezes through a chimney-like skylight.

Before heading out east to see the homes yourself, discover five houses keeping Fire Island's modernist mood alive.  

Set amid the greenery of Shore Walk, this 1964 beach house is a charming early work of post-and-beam construction by Harry Bates of Bates Masi Architects. The modern structure was once occupied by a member of the Rockefeller family.

This airy abode on Fire Island Boulevard from 1961 is the first beach house designed by Gifford. It was retored and updated by current owner Charles Renfro of the architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro and his friend Anne Nixon of Brooklyn Office.

This 1965 home on Tarpon Walk updates the the shingle-style beach house so common in Long Island vernacular architecture. Delicately balanced on slender tower bases—a "spaceship" as Gifford called it—it hovers over its earthbound neighbors.

Designed in 1962 by a senior associate to I. M. Pei named Don Page, this Beach Hill house has been gently transported into the 21st century with a contemporary renovation by Rawlins Design.


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