635 FIRE ISLAND BLVD

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Architect: HORACE GIFFORD, 1961. Renovation: BROOKLYN OFFICE, 2015.

 

Of three identical Horace Gifford designs built at 638, 637, and 635 Fire Island Boulevard, 635 represents the most intact version of the original design. Its new owner, himself a prominent architect, worked with his good friend Anne Nixon at Brooklyn Office to dust off this once-forlorn and easily overlooked house.

 

Horace Gifford once told a reporter that “it is not until forty, maybe forty-five that an architect does work of real monument.” At twenty-eight he saw himself as a student, not a master, of architecture. Accordingly, Gifford’s first beach house adapts the forms of his teacher Louis Kahn’s Trenton Bath House (shown in black and white) to life on the dunes. The bar-shaped home is anchored by a central, glassed-in space sheltered by a pyramid-shaped roof. Juxtaposed with this vaulted space are modest flat-roofed bedrooms on each side. Sundecks to the north and south create a criss-crossing floor plan. Like the southern vernacular homes of Gifford’s youth, it is raised several feet off the ground to capture breezes, but not high enough to break through the tree line, making it nearly invisible from the public walkway. Its approach consists of a narrow, meandering board-walk that traverses the wetlands.

 

Although he would later become more adventurous with form and light, the essential grammar of Horace Gifford’s design aesthetic can already be seen in this debut structure. The home is held aloft on locust posts, ensconced in multiple sun-decks, clad with naturally-weathering cedar and redwood, and framed by an untouched landscape. It is “a tent,” as its new owner Charles Renfro aptly describes it, designed to host an especially artful form of camping.

 

Color photos: Tom Sibley. Black and white photo: John Ebstel. Background: Rafael Kalinoski.

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