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A Jazz Age Inventor's Quest to Turn Montauk Into Miami Beach

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The Harry Bruno home, one of Carl Fisher's Montauk projects. Photo copyright Montauk Library.
The Harry Bruno home, one of Carl Fisher's Montauk projects. Photo copyright Montauk Library.

Long Island in the early decades of the 1900s was New York City's playground. The scene that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to pen The Great Gatsby was home to the summer mansions of financiers and wealthy industrialists, and—as many local boat owners turned to rum-running during the Prohibition years—awash with bootlegged booze.

As growing public transport networks brought the eastern tip of the island within easy reach of New York residents and the age of the private automobile got underway, the small coastal town of Montauk became the unlikely site for the large-scale dreams of one Carl G. Fisher.

Historically blue-collar, Montauk today remains proudly independent from its moneyed neighbors to the west, and has always drawn a less-obvious artistic crowd: Paul Simon, Bruce Webber, and Julian Schnabel have homes here, while Andy Warhol kept a surprisingly rustic summer home. Rufus Wainwright famously wed his longtime partner Jorn Weisbrodt in town and held the reception at local watering hole The Shagwong.

The Ringwood House is circa 1928. Photo copyright Montauk Library.

Dotted throughout present-day Montauk are around 80 Tudor revival-style buildings Fisher created in the 1920s, ranging from modest workers' cottages to grand hillside homes, a yacht club, inns, churches, and schools, anchored by the Schultz and Weaver-designed Montauk Manor, the first of three planned hotel-castles by the sea, and the seven-story Tower, Suffolk County's first tall building.

With this ambitious project, Fisher intended to establish the town as a summer playground for the wealthy—and as the northern counterpart of Miami Beach, the city that Fisher had brought to life out of a swampy wasteland.

An inventor with a showman's flair and a self-made man who left school before puberty, Fisher was the archetypal Jazz Age character, and one whose trajectory was to follow three of its main commercial interests, real estate, cars, and liquor.

Born in Indiana in 1874, he had already ticked off a series of successful business ventures by the age of 30—and used some jaw-dropping stunts to promote them, including riding a bicycle on a tightrope between two buildings, and launching his seven-passenger Stoddard-Dayton automobile off a building with a large orange balloon, then driving back into town with the balloon neatly folded on the back seat (no one guessed his brother had been waiting several miles away with the heavy motor to replace it when the car landed).

Image copyright Montauk Library.

"If I were a movie producer, this would be a fascinating story to tell, because this guy was a real character," says local architect Richard Sheckman, who has penned a history of the man and his architectural legacy, and who worked on some of the large Tudor-style homes he left behind.

"Fisher was a little bit crazy. He pulled all these stunts, and the way he lived his life has been well documented. He was pretty high-rolling—I get the feeling he was a real party animal."

Fisher made his fortune in 1909, when he and a partner sold the Prest-O-Lite, a new type of acetylene-gas headlamp for automobiles that allowed for safe night driving, to Union Carbide.

In at the ground floor of America's nascent automotive industry, he competed in races at home and abroad and, banking on an idea that seemed improbable at the time—a car for every household— built the Indianapolis Speedway five miles out of town, partially as a proving ground for American cars.

Disgruntled with the sorry state of public roads, Fisher was also the brains behind the Lincoln Highway, the country's first coast-to-coast road for vehicles. Built in 1913, it originated in New York and crossed 12 states to terminate in San Francisco. He followed it a year later with the north-south Dixie Highway, between Indianapolis and Miami.

Montauk Manor circa 1927. Image copyright Montauk Library.

When he moved to Florida in 1912, Fisher initially had retirement in mind, but instead he became involved with real estate development (with a lucrative sideline in bootlegged liquor).

Floridians initially jeered. An unattributed quote that appeared in Coronet magazine—"That man Fisher must be crazy! The Hoosier fool is trying to make a tourist resort out of that crocodile hole."—summed up the general consensus.

Again, however, his timing was spot on. By the 1920s, he was one of the Florida land boom's most influential players, and had built Miami Beach out of a mostly unpopulated barrier island and little more than "a tangle of mangroves and sawgrass in Biscayne Bay," says Sheckman.

His promotional stunts at the time included erecting billboards across the country featuring bathing beauties on white-sand Florida beaches, and an enormous illuminated sign in Times Square, announcing, "It's June in Miami." Meanwhile, he shamelessly courted the national press by acquiring Rosie, a baby elephant, and having her pose as a golf cart for vacationing President Warren Harding.

The Deep Sea club circa 1928. Image copyright Montauk Library.

Fisher envisioned Montauk as his next Miami, and in Montauk he embarked on a venture that was even larger in scale, borrowing against his Miami properties to bankroll it.

He vied with another pivotal figure in the state's development, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who had his own vision of Long Island as a network of state parks and parkways.

Moses finally secured two park sites by exercising rights of eminent domain—as he was later to do again, more controversially, with the Stuyvesant Town housing project in New York City—but Fisher spent $2.5 million to secure 9,000 acres of Montauk on which to build his dream community.

With its rolling hills shaped by 300 years of agriculture, the area reminded Fisher of the romantic English moors, says Sheckman. Tudor-revival architecture had arrived in the US in the early 1900s, in a style characterized by half-timbered stucco exteriors, mullioned windows, and pitched roofs which, detached from their grand medieval origins, instead convey a rustic, English country-house quality.

"They had spatial qualities that were unique on the market at the time," says Sheckman. "Living spaces had vaulted cathedral ceilings and a double-height space, and there were balconies, stone fireplaces, and built-in cabinetwork. The houses worked really well and were very romantic."

Image copyright Montauk Library.

This included Fisher's local residence on North Farragut Road, designed in 1928 by architect Arthur W. B. Wood, whose own Windmill House also stands nearby.

Between 1926 and 1930, Fisher employed around 800 men to build, lay infrastructure, and carry out projects like the creation of Montauk Harbor and its yacht basin, which involved dredging the freshwater Lake Montauk, dynamiting a channel to the sea, and building a yacht club and a causeway to Star Island.

Promoting his scheme with the slogan "Miami Beach in the winter, Montauk Point in the summer," he would take prospective buyers to his office—modeled after his one in Miami—on the penthouse floor of the Tower to give them an impressive bird's eye view of the town.

If Fisher had had his way, Montauk would have become the main port for transatlantic steamers, because the new fast train service could cut a day of travel time to New York. The town was to be a stop on the route of the international sporting club set, who would divide their time between chic restaurants, the surf club, tennis auditorium, theater, and yacht club.

Montauk's indoor tennis courts circa 1930. Image copyright Montauk Library.

Sadly however, Montauk was to be Fisher's last big gamble. Despite his quixotic reputation, the entrepreneur tended to shy away from personal publicity, and he refused to speculate on property. According to a 1949 biography that ran in Coronet, he wouldn't sell a lot until the project was completely developed, meaning the risks were all his.

The first cracks appeared when the Florida real estate bubble burst after 1925, followed by the 1926 hurricane that devastated Miami Beach. Visitor numbers dropped sharply, and Fisher's investments, which included the Lincoln, King Cole, Nautilus, and Flamingo hotels, were hard hit.

The final blow was the stock market crash of 1929 and the start of the Great Depression. The Montauk venture, already dependent on Miami for financing, was in dire straits by then, and finally went into receivership in 1932.

Today, the vast majority of his well-constructed buildings still stand, both as private homes and well-frequented public spots, such as the yacht club and Montauk Manor, now a condominium-hotel.

Fisher, having lost his $100-million fortune, finally did retire to Miami—to a cottage and a small salary from his former partners for promotional work. Already a heavy drinker, and with his enterprises dead in the water, he became self-destructive. By 1938, he had developed cirrhosis of the liver, and died the next year of a gastric hemorrhage.

"It was an eccentric life that ended in tragedy," says Sheckman. "And also, somewhat of a tragic comedy—Fisher was a very Gatsby-esque character."

Aside from three biographies and a small statue at the northern end of Miami Beach bearing the legend, "He carved a great city out of a jungle," not much remains to memorialize the man himself: perhaps, as Sheckman suggests, the time is ripe for a cinematic reimagining of the life and times of Carl G. Fisher.

· Montauk coverage [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]