Erosion is a theme of the pines, with its wind-tortured dunes and combustible wood constructions. But Bobby Bonanno, 65, who works as a hairstylist in Bellport, NY, and has been visiting the Pines for more than four decades, worried about memory erosion. To protect the heritage of the Pines, the affluent, largely LGBTQ hamlet near the center of Fire Island, he decided to create the Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society.
“It’s become my passion project,” he said of the historical society he founded in 2010, because “a lot of these young people who come here to party” – most of them taking the ferry from Sayville on the south shore of Long Island – “they have no idea that gay people in the 1940s or 50s were handcuffed to poles here when the cops came for night raids. The police would bring the men back to Sayville and imprison them, Mr. Bonanno said. “And if your name was published in the newspaper, you were ruined.”
He does not want to depress young people and tries to make even grim history “tasty” by collecting photographs and documents and conducting interviews, which he publishes on the website which is the main place of the historical society. He tells how, in the first half of the 20th century, the Pines had a Coast Guard lifeboat station and was known as Lone Hill. Those who crossed over to the continent were often nudists.
The first iteration of the Pines was a family community planned in 1952 by the Home Guardian Company on land it had owned since the 1920s and divided into 122 relatively large lots (at least compared to property on other parts of Fire Island). The gestalt changed when a succession of gay business owners took over the small commercial area near the deep-water port, creating housing and a famous boozy dance club called the Pavilion. They also brought artists, writers, entertainers and people from the fashion industry with them.
The Pines became a gay Shangri-La that granted exuberant freedom to men and women taking vacations from their closed lives. When the AIDS epidemic emerged in the 1980s, it failed to destroy this spirit. Instead, he inspired organizations like Gay Men’s Health Crisis to take action, funded by money raised from parties held at all hours of the night and day.
Recently, Mr. Bonanno developed a walking tour of the exteriors of the Pines Beach Houses, a 90-minute trivia stream about visiting celebrities like Bette Midler and artist David Hockney; groundbreaking architects like Horace Gifford and Andrew Geller; orgies (no names provided); and fires like the one that destroyed the Pavilion in 2011 (it was later rebuilt).
On a sunny April day, he led a journalist, her husband and a photographer on his “walk through history” along undulating promenades lined with bamboo hedges and scrubby evergreens, stopping at 43 sites to prepare.
The tour started at the eastern end of the pines, near the intersection of Ocean Walk, which runs parallel to the shore, and Sail Walk, one of the paths leading south to the Atlantic. Down the beach was where Talisman, a 12-acre resort founded by Broadway producer Michael Butler and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, rocked in the early 60s until the National Seashore, empowered by the Wilderness Act of 1964, takes it over through eminent domain. and largely returned it to nature. You can still see remnants of the Japanese-inspired buildings, Mr. Bonanno said.
At 443 Sail Walk (Stop #5), he introduced the Pyramid House, an angular edifice surrounded by a trio of peaked-roofed guesthouses. The building was designed by an Argentine architect named Julio Kaufman (who would lose an arm in a seaplane crash) for John Goodwin, a nephew of JP Morgan. In 2001, writer Paul Rudnick bought it and commissioned a full-scale rebuild from architect Hal Hayes.
Vintage photos in Mr. Bonanno’s document show a glass curtain wall facing the ocean that is no longer visible from the repositioned entrance, but Mr. Bonanno saw the beautiful view with his own eyes. “I’ve been in the house,” he said. “He receives warm.”
As Pyramid House made clear, there was no shortage of visionary architects in the pines, and no qualms about messing with someone else’s work. The typical Pines house of the 1950s, Mr. Bonanno said, was a modest one-story beach house, and in the absence of regulations, many were demolished and replaced with larger, more garish structures.
Some properties have done well. Still recognizable is the Kodak House at 482 Tarpon Walk (Stop #10), designed in the mid-1960s by Mr. Gifford for his own use. The subject of a 2013 book by Christopher Rawlins titled “Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction”, Mr. Gifford added theatricality to the mission of modern architecture, fusing the interior and the outside. According to Rawlins, the house got its name from its resemblance to Kodak Instamatic cameras from the 1970s.
While Pines houses weren’t born with names, they often acquired them over time, and sometimes received more than one. The house with a very low and very wide front gable at 413 Ocean Walk (stop #14) was originally clad in yellow and was called Mustard House. Then it became known as Cape Cod House and also Pizza Hut. In 1989 and 1990, it was the site of the “Morning Parties” (continuations, in reality, of the festivities of the previous night) which benefited Gay Men’s Health Crisis. When drugs appeared at the scene and the pool collapsed, GMHC severed ties and the party moved to other venues, Bonanno said.
At 410 Ocean Walk (Stop #16), a two-bedroom weathered cedar home with a wraparound balcony, the main distinction was that it was rented by actors Montgomery Clift and Diahann Carroll, at different times. Both celebrities were supportive of the community, Mr. Bonanno said; Ms. Carroll took a particular interest in planting beach grass on the dunes.
The Pines have attracted not only Hollywood stars, but their ex-spouses as well, and Mr. Bonanno made sure the exes got their due. Joan McCracken, the dancer and actress who was director Bob Fosse’s second wife and model for Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s short story “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, lived at 458 Ocean Walk (Stop #7). Mr Capote wrote the book nearby, and Mrs McCracken’s first husband, dancer and writer Jack Dunphy, was her longtime romantic partner.
And 403 Ocean Walk (stop #21), belonged to Susan Blanchard, Henry Fonda’s third wife (he had five, and she was also once married to actor Richard Widmark). Finding photos of occupants of a gated community before the smartphone era is devilishly difficult, Bonanno said. But the historical society has a letter the Whirlpool Foundation sent to Ms Fonda when she bought a household appliance.
Besides the many flatshares in the hamlet, one of which, at 150 Ocean Walk, was used for “Fire Island”, a reality series that aired in 2017 and which still makes Mr. Bonanno wince when he remembers it (judgment n°34), Les Pins has a multi-family residential complex. This is a mid-century modern development called the Coops with 100 seasonal units spread over two acres along Fire Island Blvd (Stop #29). Designed as a hotel, the Coop brought electricity to the community where there was none before 1960.
At 142 Ocean Walk (Stop #39), something was off with the silhouette of the famous trapezoidal building known as the TV House until Mr. Bonanno pointed out that the exterior walls flanking the glass facade facing the The ocean (the TV “screen”) had been removed in the middle of the renovation, leaving a single roof overhang. “Somebody decided to give the house some bangs,” he said. (The original design will be restored.)
The penultimate house was 566-67 Driftwood Walk (Stop #42), a curvaceous affair built in 1972 by a family called Sloan, sold to fashion designer Calvin Klein in 1977 (he told Marc Jacobs that it was “one of the sexiest houses I think I’ve ever owned”), then acquired by music and film executive David Geffen in the 1990s. The house changed hands several times from.
The tour ended at 557 Ocean Walk, originally the home of Canadian architect Arthur Erickson and his partner, interior designer Francisco Kripacz. Built in 1977, it is known as “Lincoln Center” because, like Manhattan’s cultural complex, it is orthogonal and pale and has lots of glass. “There was a retractable roof over the living room and a retractable ocean-facing wall in the back,” Mr. Bonanno said.
Pop singer Roberta Flack once performed at a house party surrounded by hundreds of silver balloons and the smoke from dry ice. Today it is owned by cable star and former pornographic actress Robin Byrd and alternatively described as the Byrd House.
Mr. Bonanno will direct “A walk through history” on Saturday, May 28 and Sunday, May 29, to benefit the Pines Care Center, which provides free medical services to the community. The price is $35. For more information on these and other tour dates and to make reservations, go to Pineshistory.org.