638 FIRE ISLAND BLVD
Architect: HORACE GIFFORD, 1961.
“I am building myself a nice beach cottage. I hope you’ll come and visit,” read the casual aside in Horace Gifford’s letter to a college friend in 1961.” This is the house that launched Fire Island’s most storied architect. At twenty-eight, the Pines newcomer 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 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.
Better Homes and Gardens published the house in 1962, and sold the plans directly to subscribers. Two replicas of the original were built at 637 and 635 Fire Island Boulevard. Gifford traded this home for a stunning new dwelling at 523 Snapper Walk in 1965, but he revisited this freshman effort in 1971 to design an unrealized addition for Gerald Bram.
This home is featured in Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction.
House photos: courtesy David Menkes. Article Photos: Vincent Lisanti. Gifford portrait: courtesy Jane Slay. Trenton Bath House: John Ebstel. Blueprints: Horace Gifford Archive, courtesy Christopher Rawlins.