clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Creating the 'Beach Modernism' of Fire Island's Famous Pines

New, 9 comments
Inside the Ocean View complex. All photos courtesy of Bromley Caldari.

In 1964, when architect Scott Bromley first visited the Pines, he was, in his own words, "just a green kid from Canada." He'd recently graduated from McGill University in Montreal, and he arrived in New York just as Fire Island's legendary gay enclave was experiencing its own era of free love.

As documented by the photographer Tom Bianchi in his 1975 to 1983 polaroids, it was a time of liberation, camaraderie, and pleasure, carried out against a backdrop of white sand, winding boardwalks, and eternally blue skies—and often, also, the geometric contours, cedar siding, and sparkling pools of a new generation of beach houses.

In the early sixties, says Bromley, most dwellings were essentially beach shacks on small plots, creating a back-to-basics haven from the urban towers of Manhattan. Few people had phone lines, a few more had washing machines. "There was electricity and running water but otherwise, it was frontier-ville," he laughs. "Architecturally, there was nothing outstanding; they had mostly pitched roofs, and there were very few two-story houses, usually just one or two bedrooms and an open kitchen, living and dining space. And a lot of deck. It was the outdoor living that was really interesting—you came here in the summer months and god help you if it rained. You'd be crowded inside, playing Canasta or charades."

[Glimpses inside two Bromley Caldari Pines projects.]

As the era gained momentum and the Pines grew up, the area attracted an increasingly wealthy and talented vacation community that included many in fashion and architecture, such as Calvin Klein and Fern Mallis, the creator of New York Fashion Week. Among the architects who began to design homes in the Pines was Horace Gifford, whose work rapidly came to embody this newly liberated beach modernism: modest, low-tech wood-and-glass houses that sat lightly among the protected dunes of the island.

[The Pines in 1969. Photo courtesy the Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society.]

It was, essentially, the antithesis of the suburban ideal: no cars, no carefully maintained lawns, no fences—just meandering paths that took you from the boardwalk to the front door. Gifford, who often talked his wealthy clients into building houses with a smaller footprint, is quoted by his biographer, Christopher Rawlins, as saying, "Someday we will learn to live with nature, instead of living on nature."

"He was the ruling guy in terms of Fire Island modernism," says Bromley, who has lived in a typically modestly sized, one-story Gifford home since 1980. "And he was my hero in beach architecture. He lived behind me, and I knew him well. I did once sneak into one of his houses, which belonged to Calvin Klein, and find a set of rolled up drawings—and the details were incredible. He was a great planner and architect, and I found a lot of stuff I was doing was in sync with him."

[Inside the Ocean View complex.]

Although he was reluctant to work where he played, Bromley began dabbling in renovation work in the Pines, while simultaneously building his practice with then-partner Robin Jacobsen back in New York. His first commission, which involved re-drawing house plans on graph paper for friends to get them an extra bedroom and open-plan kitchen and dining room in the same building envelope the contractor had signed off, was rewarded with a case of Cristal every year.

"It escalated from there, with people asking me to do their bathroom, or their deck, or design some simple furniture," he says. "I got involved. I'm not sure that I loved working where I vacationed, but I love what I do—and then we designed Studio 54 in 1977, and all hell broke loose."

The era of disco also marked the genesis of the circuit party; after the ribbon was cut on Studio 54, Bromley Jacobsen was asked to design a party on the beach at the Pines. Held for the first time in 1979 and called simply "Beach," it attracted 2,000 people, showcased the rising talent of the then-16-year-old Canadian chanteuse France Jolie and raised enough money to buy a new firetruck for the community—and in the doing became the grandfather of all-night dance events nationwide.

It also cemented the practice's involvement in the community. Soon, Bromley was hosting an annual summer party at his house called "Margaritas from Hell"—a tradition he upholds to this day: "People were coming along, and saying they'd love me to do their houses. It was all word of mouth, because obviously there wasn't the internet at that point."

[The Pines in 1970. Photo courtesy the Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society.]

And then AIDS arrived. It struck the small community hard. "Half the town disappeared," he says. He began writing the names of people he knew closely who had died in a journal, one each day, starting on the first day of 1980. Halfway through the year, he had filled the pages to May—around 120 people, among them his original practice partner.

Unsurprisingly, those were lean times for building. Most efforts went towards raising both funds and awareness. As the community began to right itself in the early 90s—and after Horace Gifford's death, also from AIDS, in 1992—Bromley, with new partner Jerry Caldari, moved into pole position as Fire Island's go-to architects.

[The Ocean View complex before the Bromley Caldari redo.]

Today, with more than 70 projects the length of Fire Island (and still building), Bromley Caldari Architects has done more to shape the resort's architectural vernacular than any other. The work ranges from the island's new, 7,500- square- foot community centre and theatre, through a range of ground-up houses, renovations of existing beach houses, and entire compounds—the recently completed Ocean View Complex, for example, is "a little village" sprawling across two plots, and consisting of a main house, guest house, staff housing, a gym, outdoor dining pavilion and pool cabana connected by their own boardwalks through the trees.

[The Ocean View Complex after renovation.]

The firm's projects are stamped with its original ethos and distinct aesthetic, influenced by Gifford and responsive to the surrounding environment but also answering the demands of the present.

Bromley Caldari beach projects are built using local wood from the north-east of Long Island, and little concrete. Simple orientation and roof angles block the harsh summer sun, allowing the lower sun to penetrate at other times of year. Before solar pool heaters, people put their garden hoses on their roofs to warm the water, and Bromley himself has never installed air-conditioning—the island is always windy, so he just opens windows.

"The idea is a maintenance-free house, made from natural materials," says Bromley. "You want to arrive, open a beer, put some pasta together, and entertain. You don't want to have to think about cleaning and packing things away every year. Open the front door and blow—that's how we do our dusting."

[The guest house at Ocean View, before and after renovation.]

One of the significant features of the island's architecture is a less-defined boundary between private and public space. Plots are, for the most part, quite small—65 or 75 feet, by 100 feet long, with lot coverage limited to 35 percent.

"Your neighbors are only 30 feet away, so the length of the houses tend not to have many windows, whereas the front and back are big sheets of glass and overhangs," says Bromley. The houses, both old and new, tend to have multiple deck levels, and require cantilevering over bulkheads to maximize outdoor areas. "The outdoor space was always important here, but the indoor space has become important too, in the sense that it's communal and very seldom separated. It's all one big space. It's all one big bar, for the most part!"

[The remodeling of an iconic 1960s A-frame.]

Eventually, those single-level beach shacks on tight plots had to start building upwards, which they did with varying degrees of success. Two of Bromley Caldari's renovation jobs on older houses reflect this. The first, a remodeling of an iconic 1960s A-frame, was a challenge—neither the height nor the central spiral staircase of the old beach rental were legitimate from a building permit perspective.

"It was interesting, because the roof is also the walls," says Bromley. "You bumped your head on the staircase, which was right in the middle of the view. In a traditional house they're not considered the main means of egress [for safety reasons]. Three-level buildings aren't allowed in the Pines either, but this was built so long ago it was just grandfathered in."

[The staircase of the A-frame.]

The firm bent the rules a little further and installed bay windows that extend slightly beyond the building envelope, adding an extra two feet of space on each side. This allowed them to build a sculptural, "real" staircase. "We had to be careful, because each floor gets smaller the higher you get—we had to be very clever about hiding things in the triangle."

[2 Ocean Walk before renovation.]

Another small, early 60s gem, originally designed by Harry Bates (who was famous for putting the living room on the first floor, with bedrooms beneath) has a breezeway running from the front gate, through the center of the structure, and straight to the beach. "It was lugubrious and tiny when we found it, but we opened up the kitchen to the living and dining areas, and enlarged the windows," says Bromley. Today, the whole top floor is open-plan and basks in light, particularly the custom-designed master bathtub, which sits in a large window overlooking the ocean. (To Bromley's delight, it also won Bates' seal of approval when he visited on a house tour.)

[2 Ocean Walk after renovation.]

These days, people tend to come earlier and stay later at the Pines, and the architecture has developed to suit variable weather. Reflective of wider social shifts, more of the inhabitants these days also have children, including the owners of a two-story house close to the Fire Island Pines marina, on Bayside Walk, with a separate guest and pool house, a pool, and an outdoor kitchen. To cater for the family of five, plus their nanny and friends, the plan centered around a mixture of private, public, and play spaces for big and small people alike. The overall aesthetic was based on a house the owners had admired from the 1979 film, When a Stranger Calls.

[The renovated Bayside House.]

Perhaps most stunning, however, is the renovation of a small beachside shack for two design-savvy owners. Bromley Caldari hid the guest bedrooms behind the kitchen, and created a new and distinct pavilion for the master bedroom, a walk-through dressing room and, at the end, a sunken tub which faces the sea. "This was monumental," says Bromley. "The building creates an ell, with the pool in the centre and the Atlantic on the fourth edge."

[The Oceanside Residence.]

"People say they know a Bromley Caldari house, and they're probably right," says Bromley. "We always use the same principles of maintenance, good planning and local materials, and try to be as green as we can. And yes, we do use a lot of cedar boards!"

· Official site: Bromley Caldari []
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]