Island of seduction
Architecture, lifestyle of New York’s Fire Island celebrated in two new books

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Vintage polaroid snapshot of Fire Island by Tom Bianchi

The way a kid feels that day before the last day of school before summer vacation? That’s the way Fire Island fans feel before the long Memorial Day weekend. The way a kid feels that day before the first day of the new school year? That’s the way Fire Island fans feel about Labor Day weekend.

You can read it in the tweets city-dwellers broadcast before Memorial Day weekend – the longing messages about catching the ferry to Fire Island, slipping into flip-flops, soaking up some sun, welcoming summer.

“Beach-bound, baby,” read one tweet.

“I heart Fire Island,” read another.

And then “Missed you. #FireIsland,” “Can’t wait to get to #FireIsland,” “Tingling thinking about #FireIslandPines,” “Escape to #FireIsland.”

The barrier island is about 5.5 miles across Great South Bay from Long Island and reached mostly by ferry. In the 2010 U.S. Census, there were 292 permanent residents, but the population swells in the summer, especially on the weekends, when thousands step off the ferry and head for a favorite spot on the seashore, a rendezvous at the lighthouse, a room at the Belvedere, an underwear party at The Ice Palace, a drag show at Cherries on the Bay, a Blanche Devereaux cocktail at the Blue Whale or a slice of cheese and pepperoni at Cherry Grove Pizza.

The island is a summer retreat from NYC for many. And it has long been a paradise for the gay community, particularly in Cherry Grove and the Pines.

In late May, after thousands of LGBT activists marched on Manhattan streets to protest a series of hate crimes, including the fatal shooting of a gay man on May 18, the serene seashore and peaceful pines beckoned with refuge and recreation.

Visitors on Memorial Day saw how much the island – largely through the Fire Island Revive campaign – has rebounded after Superstorm Sandy’s high tides and strong surge damaged buildings and washed away much of the shore in October 2012.

Visitors also saw the progress at the muscular Pavilion nightclub, the legendary Fire Island Pines dance club destroyed by fire in November 2011 and rebuilt for “high tea,” cabaret, theater, art exhibits and weddings.

“Although the new building has the same envelope and mix of uses as its predecessor, the similarities end there,” said developer Matthew Blesso of FIP Ventures. “The new structure is modern and casual, bold and iconic. It is the first thing visitors seen when getting off the ferry, and we envision it to once again be the heart of the Pines community.”

The Pavilion’s resurrection comes as the Pines marks its 60th anniversary, which explains why the island’s summer calendar is so crowded with events.

Examining the island’s past

Two newly published books explore the history and the culture of the community.

In “Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction” from Metropolis Books, Christopher Bascom Rawlins writes how the overlooked gay architect’s beach houses transformed the landscape and the culture of Fire Island.

Gifford grew up on the beaches of Florida and, in Rawlins’ telling, the architect’s deep connection to nature shows in the buildings he created for the shore just 50 minutes from the skyscrapers of New York.

Rawlins was exploring the Pines – “an urban invention, possessing a rustic-chic aesthetic that only a city-dweller could conjure” – when he caught a glimpse of a seductive home through a tangle of holly trees, then saw another intriguing home and another.

He began knocking on doors to inquire about the architect and, in each case, was told the designer was Gifford. Soon Rawlins rented what turned out to be Gifford’s residence and delved into a study of the architect’s life and work, which were so evocative of the Stonewall era – seductive, liberating, modern. The author describes seeing a slideshow of Gifford’s “ingenious homes flashed before me, tucked into lightly settled, utopian dunescapes. I was smitten, and determined to introduce this work to a broader public.”

“Tom Bianchi: Fire Island Pines, Polaroids 1975-1983” from Damiani could serve as a companion to “Fire Island Modernist.” Bianchi photographs even appear in “Modernist” to strengthen the ties.

Bianchi’s book – he provided the text and never-before published images, while Edmund White wrote the introduction – tells the story of sun, sex, camaraderie and reverie in the Pines.

Bianchi first heard of Fire Island in the 1950s, when he purchased a 25-cent “physique” magazine at a newsstand in downtown Chicago that contained a photograph of bodybuilder Glenn Bishop on Fire Island. “Fire Island sounded exotic, perhaps a name made up by the photographer,” wrote Bianchi. “I had no idea it was a real place. Certainly I had no idea then that it was a place I would one day call home.”

In 1970, Bianchi spent a weekend at Fire Island Pines, where he became a regular, got a beach house, found a community and made friends. He used an SX-70 Polaroid camera to lovingly celebrate the people – men mostly, bronzed and buff, in Speedos or faded Levi’s – in the Pines.

The sunny Polaroids end in 1983, as HIV brought disaster. Bianchi boxed the photographs and stored them at his Palm Springs, Calif., home for decades. He said the Polaroids became a record of a lost time and a lost world too painful to visit.

But when he opened the box years later, he found the lovers and friends, alive again, back on Fire Island.