On Fire Island, Bromley Caldari Architects Reinvents a 1960s A-Frame Overlooking Great South Bay
Several times a day at our home in Fire Island Pines, the same scene plays out. Visitors, in knots of twos or threes, stand unannounced in our entryway, craning their necks to get a glimpse of the suspended staircase dangling like sculpture above the 18-foot-high living room. First, we hear whispers (“Don’t run away”; “Get back over here!”), before the boldest peeps through the glass, “Excuse me, but we’ve known this house since we were little, and we’ve been watching it change the past few years, and well . . . .” At this point, my partner, Doug Harris, and I usually invite them in. Even before we purchased the house, it was a bit of a curiosity to us, too, so we understand where they’re coming from.
After nearly three years of planning, permitting, and construction, the renovation of our 1965 A-frame on Great South Bay is finally finished, and the results are arresting—even in a community famed for its mid-20th-century architecture. What began as a clunky triangle (think meh-frame with dark, unusable spaces and a treacherous spiral stair) is now a testament to efficiency, simplicity, and beauty, with energy-friendly materials and technologies. As a friend noted upon its completion, “It looks like a glamorous UFO. Of course people are going to want to see it up close.”
We never would have thought the house would become such an attraction—let alone that we’d be living in it one day. For a decade, we had resided nearby, where we looked upon the jarringly tall structure with mild-to-vigorous disdain. Doug was more forgiving than I, as he viewed it in terms of its significance to the community. Judy Garland spent part of a summer there (she pulled up to the house by seaplane), and movies were once projected, drive-in style, onto its vast, windowless roof. But over the decades it had devolved into a hyperactive rental share with an aesthetic most diplomatically described as Brazilian sex hotel. Tatty and partied out, it was well past its prime.
Despite its faded-lounge-act vibe, Doug and I recognized the value of the location and sensed the house’s potential. The game plan: Clarify its geometry by removing all flimsy partitions, bring four bedrooms down to two, and open up the sides to maximize the light, the views, and the cross-ventilation. Add to that an emissive metal roof with hurricane-resistant skylights that warm it in winter and cool it in summer. All these objectives were doable, particularly in light of the elephant in the room, the dreaded metal stair, rammed squarely up the house’s middle and monopolizing its heart. With its steps at head height, we dubbed it the Scalper. What had been a chic architectural motif in Judy’s day now whiffed of old Steely Dan, and its removal was key to unlocking the house’s potential.
Not so easily done, given the home’s location within the Fire Island National Seashore (FINS) and the area’s complicated building code. Enter Scott Bromley of Bromley Caldari Architects, which has designed and renovated dozens of homes on Fire Island for the past several decades. (Bromley designed the original Studio 54, so we knew the lighting would be flawless.)
He initially proposed shifting the stairway to one side, but spiral stairs can no longer be installed on Fire Island due to egress regulations. So he and Walter Boss (a longtime Pines custom builder adept in making things happen) devised a new approach: Create a serpentine, split stair curving up and out from the first floor on the far right, add a catwalk across the second floor, and then curve the stair back up and around to the third. The revised design was submitted to the Town of Brookhaven for approval, along with a request to add windows and skylights to the existing structure. A year after we purchased it, the A-frame was given a new lease on life. The result: An airy cathedral of light and texture, complex in its simplicity to the point where pieces lock into place, like a Rubik’s Cube.
And now, 18 months later, people routinely barge through our entryway, creep around our decks, and slink across our bulkhead. (“Oh, sorry, we were just looking for the bay.”) We generally take it in stride, since hogging the stunning structure would somehow seem culturally stingy. Still, it takes a surfeit of charity at sunset, when you realize you are sharing it with half a dozen strangers who are peering through your windows. Doug and I just keep telling ourselves that in the spirit of Judy, the show must go on.
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