Fire Island Society Aims to Preserve the History of the Pines

Fire Island Society Aims to Preserve the History of the Pines

Erosion is an issue at The Pines, with its windswept dunes and combustible wooden buildings. But Bobby Bonanno, 65, who works as a hairstylist in Bellport, NY and has been visiting the Pines for more than four decades, was concerned about the memory erosion. To protect the legacy of the Pines, the affluent, mostly LGBTQ village near central Fire Island, he decided to start 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 celebrate” — most of them take the ferry from Sayville on Long Island’s south shore — “They have no idea gay men were handcuffed to poles here in the ’40s or ’50s when cops came by on nightly raids.” Police would take the men back to Sayville and lock them up, Mr. Bonanno said. “And if your name got published in the newspaper, you were ruined.”

He doesn’t want to depress young people and tries to make even dark history “palatable” by collecting photos and documents and conducting interviews, which he publishes on the website, the central point of contact for the history association. It tells the story of how the Pines had a Coast Guard Rescue Station and was known as Lone Hill in the first half of the 20th century. Those who came over from the mainland were not infrequently nudists.

The first iteration of the Pines was a family-oriented community planned by the Home Guardian Company in 1952 on land it had owned since the 1920s and divided into 122 relatively large lots (at least compared to lots in other parts of Fire Iceland). The shape changed when a series of gay business owners took over the tiny business park near the Deepwater Harbor and created housing and a famously boisterous dance club called the Pavilion. They also brought artists, writers, entertainers and people from the fashion industry.

The Pines grew into a gay Shangri-La, granting exuberant freedom to men and women taking a vacation from their closed lives. When the AIDS epidemic hit in the 1980s, it failed to destroy that spirit. Instead, it spurred organizations like Gay Men’s Health Crisis into action, funded by funds raised at parties held around the clock.

Recently, Mr. Bonanno developed a tour of the Pines Beach House grounds, a 90-minute stream of anecdotes about visiting celebrities such as Bette Midler and artist David Hockney; pioneering architects such as Horace Gifford and Andrew Geller; orgies (no names given); and fires like the one that destroyed the pavilion in 2011 (it was later rebuilt).

On a sunny day in April, he led a reporter, her husband and a photographer on his “Walk Through History” along hilly boardwalks lined with bamboo hedges and scrubby evergreens, stopping at 43 locations for food.

The tour began at the east end of the Pines, near the intersection of Ocean Walk, which runs parallel to the coast, and Sail Walk, one of the trails that lead south to the Atlantic. Down on the beach was Talisman, a 12-acre resort swung by Broadway producer Michael Butler and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun in the early ’60s until the National Seashore, empowered by the Wilderness Act of 1964 , confiscated it by significant domain and largely returned 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, a square building with three peaked-roof guest houses. The building was designed by an Argentine architect named Julio Kaufman (who later lost an arm in a seaplane accident) for John Goodwin, a nephew of JP Morgan. In 2001, writer Paul Rudnick bought it and commissioned architect Hal Hayes to do a full-throttle conversion.

The old photos in Mr. Bonanno’s handout show a glass curtain wall overlooking the ocean that is no longer visible from the repositioned entrance, but Mr. Bonanno saw the beautiful view first-hand. “I was in the house,” he said. “It’s getting hot.”

As Pyramid House made clear, there was no shortage of visionary architects building in the Pines, and there was no qualms about disrupting the work of others. The typical 1950s Pines home, Mr. Bonanno said, was a modest, single-story beach house, and for lack of regulations, many have been demolished and replaced with larger, bolder buildings.

Some properties got off lightly. Still recognizable is the Kodak House at 482 Tarpon Walk (Stop #10), designed by Mr. Gifford for Robert Evans and Scott DePass in the mid-1960s. The subject of a 2013 book by Christopher Rawlins called Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction, Mr. Gifford added theatricality to the mission of modern architecture by merging inside and outside. According to Mr. Rawlins, the house gets its name from its resemblance to the Kodak Instamatic cameras of the 1970s.

If Pines homes were not born with names, they often acquired them over time, sometimes receiving more than one. The house with a very wide gable at 413 Ocean Walk (Stop #14) was originally clad in yellow siding and was called the Mustard House. Then it became known as Cape Cod House and also as Pizza Hut. In 1989 and 1990, it was the site of the “morning parties” (actually continuations of the previous night’s parties) that Gay Men’s Health Crisis capitalized on. When drugs surfaced and the swimming pool collapsed, GMHC cut ties and the party moved to other venues, Mr Bonanno said.

At 410 Ocean Walk (Stop #16), a two-bedroom weathered cedar home with a wraparound balcony, the primary difference was that it was rented by actors Montgomery Clift and Diahann Carroll at different times. Both celebrities supported the community, Mr Bonanno said; Ms. Carroll was particularly interested in planting beach grass on the dunes.

As well as attracting Hollywood A-listers, the Pines attracted their ex-spouses as well, and Mr. Bonanno made sure the ex-boyfriends got their due. Joan McCracken, the dancer and actress who was the second wife of film director Bob Fosse and model for Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s, lived at 457 Fire Island Boulevard (Stop #7). Mr. Capote wrote the book nearby, and Ms. McCracken’s first husband, dancer and writer Jack Dunphy, was his longtime romantic partner.

And 403 Ocean Walk (Stop #21) was owned by Susan Blanchard, third wife of Henry Fonda (he had five, and she was also married to actor Richard Widmark for a time). It’s fiendishly difficult to track down photos of residents in a protected community before the smartphone age, Mr Bonanno said. But the historical society has a letter that the Whirlpool Foundation sent to Ms. Fonda when she was purchasing a home appliance.

Aside from the hamlet’s many shared apartments, one of which, 150 Ocean Walk, was used for “Fire Island,” a reality television series that aired in 2017 and still makes Mr. Bonanno cringe when he recalls it (stop no 34), The Pines is a multi-family complex. It’s a mid-century modern development called Coops with 100 seasonal units laid out on two acres on Fire Island Boulevard (stop #29). Planned as a hotel, the Coops brought electricity to the community where there was none before 1960.

At 142 Ocean Walk (Stop #39), something about the silhouette of the famous trapezoidal building known as the TV House didn’t look right until Mr. Bonanno pointed out that the exterior walls flanking the glass facade facing the sea (the ” The TV’s “screen” ) had been removed during the renovation, leaving a lonely eaves. “Someone decided to put bangs on the house,” he said. (The original design is restored.)

The penultimate home was 566-67 Driftwood Walk (stop #42), a curvaceous property built in 1972 by a family named Sloan and sold to fashion designer Calvin Klein in 1977 (he told Marc Jacobs it was “one of the hottest homes.” “. I think I’ve ever owned it”) and then acquired by music and film executive David Geffen in the 1990s. Since then, the house has changed hands several times.

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’s known as the “Lincoln Center” because, like the cultural complex in Manhattan, it’s orthogonal, pale, and has lots of glass. “There was a retractable roof over the living area and a retractable sea-view wall at the back,” Mr. Bonanno said.

Pop singer Roberta Flack once performed at an indoor party surrounded by hundreds of silver balloons and smoke from dry ice. Now owned by cable star and former porn star Robin Byrd, it’s alternatively referred to as the Byrd House.

Mr. Bonanno will lead “A Walk Through History” on Saturday, May 28th and Sunday, May 29th as a benefit to the Pines Care Center, which provides free medical services to the community. The price is $35. Visit for information on these and other tour dates and reservations.