How a New Yorker Restored His Midcentury Modern House on Fire Island
Physician and medical researcher Michael Giordano fine-tuned his 1965 house with a little help from his friends.
From our interview with Michael Giordano:
I had been looking to buy a house [on Fire Island, New York,] for several years before this house became available. I had started to give up on the idea. But four years ago, I got a call from my real estate agent, who said, “There’s a house you need to buy.” He sent me photographs. I said I’d come to see it the next weekend. I asked Peter Dunham, a close friend and interior designer who designed my New York City apartment, if he would come with me, because I very much trust his judgment.
We took a ferry to get out there. It was below freezing. We had to bundle up in ski gear. Peter really liked it, and then I also asked my friend Andrew Franz, the architect who did my city apartment. He said, “This is an amazing house. You need to buy it.”
I loved it for a few reasons. One, it felt like a wonderful combination of a cozy cabin surrounded by trees and a beach house with views of the bay. Also, I loved the architecture. It was so intuitively appealing. I didn’t know a lot about the architect, Horace Gifford, though I’d heard of him. And I didn’t know the house was featured in Christopher Rawlins’ book Fire Island Modernist. I didn’t know any of these things when I fell in love with the house.
Before I finalized the deal, I read Christopher Rawlins’ book and learned about the history of the house. There was very good karma associated with it. One couple lived in it for 50 of the 52 years it had existed by the time I bought it.
I envisioned the house as a relatively inexpensive Modern beach cottage, where I wouldn’t do much by way of renovations. It was great the way it was—a little worn down, but cozy. But you know how it goes. You have someone come fix one or two things, then you learn there are many other things to fix. There were a few structural issues, like the house was leaning 4 inches, and there were rotting posts and rotting pilings. Then I learned that some of the siding was rotting, so I needed to fix that. And I had to fix the roof.
You may see a theme here, which is that a number of very creative and gifted friends helped me with the house, including Peter and Andrew. My friend Jamie Bush, who’s an architect and designer in Los Angeles and grew up going to Fire Island, helped me conceptualize what we might do to the entire house and lot over time.
He and Peter put together a master plan, and in that plan we reversed the entrance from the back of the house to the front (shown at top). We conceptualized building an entry pavilion, swimming pool, and guesthouse, and making a few changes to the interior of the house, like going from one bathroom with a little laundry room to two bathrooms. But it was absolutely imperative that we keep [the rest of the original] architecture the same.
Christopher Rawlins helped us find all the old plans for the house, interviews with the previous owners, and information about the architect, as well as information about the house’s materials and where we could find them to help in our restoration.
The house is entirely glass, aluminum, and wood. With the exception of the floors, which are oak, the interior and exterior walls are all cedar boards. We sanded all the interior cedar woodwork, which brightened up the wood. We kept the historic way the wood was treated, which was to not treat it at all, except for the kitchen cabinets. There’s no finish on the wood. It’s just cedar.
We also stripped and re-finished the original oak floors. And despite being almost 60 years old, the original Arcadia sliding doors work perfectly. All the exterior cladding of the house was removed and replaced with identical new cedar boards. The decks were all rebuilt because they were pretty wobbly, but they were rebuilt to the previous configuration.There was a rickety staircase that was not to code. We needed to figure out a solution for it, without ruining the look of the house. We didn’t want the stairs to cover any of the windows, and we didn’t want them to in any way diminish the architecture. Andrew Franz and his team designed the cantilevered stairs, which was a completely brilliant solution
As we worked on the house, more and more of the interesting architectural details became obvious. For instance, the house is built on columns, which contain closets. There are 20 closets in the house, which is the way Horace Gifford thought you should live: Everything should be clean visually, and everything that can should be put in a closet.
Each closet was designed with a purpose—a closet with a bar, a closet for firewood, a coat closet. All of them are designed so that if you want to block light from coming into the room, you can open the closet door, which fits exactly into the window and serves as a shutter.
For the landscaping, I turned to another friend, Lady Tania Compton. She’s a garden designer in the U.K. She and Christopher Freimuth, a designer in New York, collaborated to landscape [the property] with plants indigenous to the island. They planted maybe 100 pines, plus berries and holly bushes and native grasses. It doesn’t necessarily look like it’s landscaped, but it is. It’s all very natural. You walk in and you feel like you’re in the woods.
The only thing I spend my time doing now is keeping up with the maintenance. It’s just about perfect now. It’s on an island surrounded by salt water, so everything deteriorates, except for the wood. A lot of materials don’t stand up well to the elements here.
The original materials—the cedar and anodized aluminum and glass—do, and so that’s why they made the house from those materials. I’ve learned that the modern things people like in their houses, like nickel faucets, don’t do well in this environment, so you have to go back to the things that were originally used. They were used for a reason.
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