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The Architecture of Seduction:
Fire Island Modernism and Architect Horace Gifford

A new book tells the largely untold story of a New York Modernist mecca and its leading practitioner

By Mike Singer

AIA-Slideshow

Fire Island

Gifford’s 1964 Kauth Residence. Image courtesy of Michael Weber.

Fire Island

The interior of the Kauth Residence. Beginning with the Kauth House in 1964, conversation pits became a staple of Gifford’s living spaces.  Sofa cushions were often tailored to slide off their frames into the pit, creating a fireside love nest. Image courtesy of Michael Weber.

Fire Island

Gifford’s 1976 Scali Guest House. This house featured shoji-like doors, a low plinth, deep overhangs, and lack of freestanding furniture, meant to evoke a Japanese temple. Image courtesy of Michael Weber.

Fire Island

Gifford’s 1967 Luck House.  For its flood-prone site in Bridgehampton, N.Y., concrete-block piers cantilevered the Luck House to safety. Image courtesy of Horace Gifford.

Fire Island

The 1965 Burge Pavilion. With an eye towards precedents by his mentor Louis Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright, Gifford designed several homes with a pinwheel of towers that strategically framed diagonal ocean views in the rapidly developing community of Fire Island Pines.  Image courtesy of Horace Gifford.

Fire Island

The Rosenthal House, 1972. “You should know two things about me,” said Gifford to potential clients Robert and Gladys Rosenthal.  “I’m gay, and I’m manic depressive.”  They were unfazed, and he rewarded their trust with a glass-walled, diamond-shaped living room that was placed between two elliptical towers containing the kitchen and the bedrooms. Image courtesy of Tom Sibley.

Fire Island

The Lipkins House, 1970. With its pulsating rooflines and thrusting cantilevers, Gifford conjured a discotheque on the dunes.  Inside, colored lighting and electric-blue shag carpet snaked through spaces with names like “The Cave” to give form to the free-wheeling, free-love culture of 1970. Image courtesy of Michael Weber.

Fire Island

The Evans/DePass Residence, 1965. This house rose on slender tower bases, a “space ship,” as Gifford described it, hovering over its earthbound beach shacks. Image courtesy of Horace Gifford.

Fire Island

Gifford’s 1969 Slay House 2.  In his only Florida residence, Gifford created a concrete home designed “so water can just sweep through with little damage” during a hurricane.  Lightweight wicker furniture was secreted away in double-height closets as danger approached. Image courtesy of Horace Gifford.

Fire Island

The Bonaguidi House 2, 1975. Between the sloped glass walls and the suspended wood floor, trap doors opened up to pull air through the home and out again through a large central skylight. Image courtesy of Horace Gifford.

Fire Island

Horace Gifford in 1963, at a construction site in Fire Island Pines. Image courtesy of Edwin Wittstein.

Fire Island

Christopher Rawlins, AIA. Image courtesy of Megan Greenlee.

New York’s Fire Island was a theater for Modernist architectural innovation in the 1960s and ’70s every much as groundbreaking as Palm Springs was decades before. For a variety of reasons, though, Fire Island’s architecture has not been the focus of nearly as much attention.

That may change soon with publication of the new book Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction. Its author, Christopher Rawlins, AIA, was in Palm Springs for Modernism Week to talk about Fire Island’s leading Modernist design pioneer—Horace Gifford (1932–1992)—an openly gay architect who has largely been forgotten until now.

Rawlins’ richly illustrated work combines architectural and social history to describe how Gifford went from a Depression-era childhood in Vero Beach, Fla., to mastery of modern domestic architecture in the New York oceanside enclave that helped shape a slice of modern culture, particularly gay culture.

Fire Island, a 31-mile-long barrier island off the South Shore of New York’s Long Island, developed cachet as an artistic refuge. It’s where Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Diane Von Furstenberg showed off her latest wrap dresses for Halston and Calvin Klein, and Jerry Herman composed Broadway show tunes on his ocean-facing piano. Writers Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden were weekend visitors as far back as the ’30s. Film celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Marilyn Monroe stayed in modest homes alongside middle-class vacationers captivated by the seashore’s natural beauty.

Rawlins spent three years assembling hundreds of vintage images, sketches, and drawings that document many of the 63 small, innovative Modernist homes Gifford built on Fire Island between 1961 and 1981. An average Gifford house was 1,000 square feet, expanded outward with oversized windows, decks, sun courts and walkways. It was often an architecture of seduction, with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, sunken living rooms and conversation pits, and exposed outdoor showers. He pursued the mysteries of light, shadow, concealment, and exposure practically and metaphorically. Rawlins’ book remarkably shows how Gifford’s design work paralleled the birth of the gay liberation movement, from 1960s pavilions that provided refuge from a hostile world to exuberant post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS masterpieces that were, in the author’s words, “orchestrated bacchanals of liberation.”

Gifford’s designs transcended prefabricated 1950s cottages with tiny windows that were delivered on barges and dragged across the fragile dunes to rest upon skinny wooden pilings. Rejecting prefabrication for this delicate coastal landscape, Gifford insisted that all materials be carried by hand to undisturbed sites. He composed and clad his structures in naturally weathering cedar inside and out, a choice that encouraged a light touch upon the earth, an easy low-maintenance lifestyle, and an aesthetic that blended into the sassafras trees.

Princeton-trained Rawlins said that encountering Gifford’s work was like meeting a kindred spirit. “Writing this book has definitely opened my eyes to the importance of architectural preservation. I used to view architecture in largely formal terms, but now I have a greater appreciation for the cultural forces at work in its creation.”

In Palm Springs, Rawlins spoke with AIArchitect about Gifford and his Modernist legacy

The vacation homes Gifford built between 1961 and 1981 were created for primarily gay clients. What role did Gifford's “architecture of seduction” play in America’s gay liberation movement?

Gifford housed the first generation of gay Americans who dared to make themselves visible. It is a bit tricky to speak of a “gay aesthetic” in monolithic terms, but if you look at the older adjacent Fire Island gay community of Cherry Grove, its prevailing artistic and architectural expressions—drag, high Victoriana, camp, a coded language of double entendres—spoke to the profound alienation of a gay man or lesbian circa 1947. A little later, in the Pines community where Gifford built most of his homes, you have a more assimilated generation seeking its own forms of expression. Those haunted houses in Cherry Grove no longer moved them. Gifford embraced the popular movement of Modernism, while imbuing his work with a particular dialect that mirrored the freewheeling physical and cultural landscape of its inhabitants. His stripped-bare structures of cedar and glass, with prurient lines of sight and an amusing lack of closets, resonated with a generation that had finally emerged from the shadows.

I think the book amply demonstrates that there is such a thing as “gay architecture” in a number of expressive forms, but when it comes to the singular term “gay aesthetic,” I am trying to avoid the error of essentialism—assuming that a particular cultural or ethnic group behaves in a monolithic fashion. In the same vein, one would describe a “black aesthetic” or a “Jewish aesthetic” with a measure of modesty and care. There are often multiple “gay aesthetics” occurring at one time. It’s not as if the Pines’ aesthetic entirely displaced the Cherry Grove aesthetic the world over. But Gifford’s work spoke to an emerging, upwardly mobile New York demographic which was one subset of the gay world.

Paul Rudolph, FAIA, and Louis Kahn, FAIA, were his mentors. What did Gifford learn from these eminent Modernists?

Paul Rudolph, while still in his 20s, began producing a remarkable series of beach houses in Sarasota, Fla. Today, we often associate Rudolph with the Yale School of Architecture building that bears his name and other works of Brutalism, but his earlier Florida work possessed a remarkable lightness and feel for the landscape. Rudolph’s Sarasota renaissance was Gifford’s model. He also realized, from Rudolph’s example, that he didn’t need to work in someone else’s office for 20 years before making his mark. By his early 30s, Gifford was the most sought-after architect on Fire Island. On a personal level, they were both gay men from small Southern towns who found their way to New York City. 

Gifford won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania where Kahn taught, yet he inexplicably dropped out a semester shy of getting his master’s degree there. Nevertheless, Kahn seems to have been almost a father figure to Gifford, and he spoke reverentially of his former professor. In fact, the first house Gifford built for himself on Fire Island was modeled after Kahn’s Trenton Bath House. Gifford combined Kahn’s feel for materials, his obsession with light, and his method of composing floor plans with Rudolph’s cross-sectional prowess and theatrical sensibilities.

Interestingly enough, unlike the AIA Fellows who inspired his work, Gifford had a public indecency arrest that he believed would preclude him from getting an architectural license, so he never got one. How did this evidence of a self-conscious “outsider” status shape him?

Gifford was out of the closet as a college student in the South during the 1950s. And he successfully worked around his lack of a license, yet he never expanded the scale of his practice in the 1970s and ’80s, as we might expect of a successful midcareer architect with an impressive portfolio. I think this has less to do with his sexual orientation and more to do with his actual secret: He was bipolar. Gifford feared losing control of a large practice during his periods of depressive oblivion. This disease was damaging enough. But the onset of AIDS, which killed Gifford [in 1992 at age 59] and much of his audience, and the rise of Post-Modernism were the knockout punches that consigned him to obscurity. Until now.

You characterize him as a "happy hippie Modernist tending his own garden, but not lacking in larger visions.” Back then, nobody was talking much about sustainability as it’s conceived now. Was Gifford ahead of his time? 

Growing up on the beaches of Florida, Gifford developed a deep connection with coastal landscapes, and a healthy respect for the tenuous nature of inhabiting them. I think he also retained a Depression-era notion of thrift that the postwar generation was sometimes too quick to abandon. So yes, he was ahead of his time, but a lot of the ideas that inform the sustainability movement were always there, but [were] submerged under a tidal wave of cheap oil and consumerism.

You spent two summers in 2007 and 2008 living in a house Gifford designed on Fire Island for himself. How did that shape your appreciation of Gifford's design aesthetic and your desire to write about him?

It was actually Gifford’s second personal home on Fire Island, which he built in 1965 and tinkered with over the next 10 years. While it held an obvious appeal—what architect wouldn’t like a beach house with lofty ceilings and disappearing glass doors?—it also kept surprising me with quieter virtues. When I measured the space, I discovered that all of the rooms were laid out with the “golden [ratio]” proportion. When I slid the cushions off the sofa, they perfectly filled the pit in front of the fireplace. He layered a lot of intelligence into seemingly simple structures. Every weekend held a new discovery. I remember thinking to myself, “I wish I had worked for this man.” Writing the book was, in a sense, my apprenticeship with Horace Gifford. And now, as a practitioner, I am engaged in the preservation and restoration of his work. 

What is the most important aspect of Gifford's Modernist legacy?

I appreciate how Gifford managed to be simultaneously modest and provocative. His houses are small, and they touch lightly upon the earth. Yet they are sexy and artful, without resorting to the aesthetics of waste. They are part of a broader Modern movement, but [are] highly inflected by local circumstances.  So his beach houses are not merely interesting artifacts of an earlier era. They are models for the future.

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