Architect studies rules for living on the edge Hurricane teaches lessons for building on Fire Island


Fire Island, a tenuous 32-mile-ribbon of headstrong houses and shifting sands between the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island, is not a place where nature likes to lie low. It is a barrier island where history is still marked in storms and shipwrecks, and where each spring locals tally the number of houses that "went in" - to the ocean, that is - the previous winter.

So when the New York architect Peter Samton tells of building his house and then living "on the edge" in Seaview, a mostly summer community of about 350 families, founded in 1895 by a family of fish trawlers, he sounds a bit like a gnarly fisherman himself recounting a furious battle with the Big One.

"I was curious," he said of his decision to stick around for Hurricane Bob in 1991, shortly after he completed the house, recalling rain "like a carwash," which was driven up, instead of down. "I discovered leaks I didn't know I had. It was a special type of postoccupancy evaluation, I guess."

Northeasters, floods, erosion, whipping sand, rust, mildew and now landscape-devouring deer: the King Learish litany of plagues that routinely thwart human efforts to create a sense of peaceful permanance on the island offers a lesson in humility for every architect and homeowner. For Samton, it also provided a compelling reason to reach backward to the near-forgotten legacy of Fire Island vernacular architecture - to a period of pitched roofs and ample porches, in which houses, he firmly believes, "were, quite simply, better built" than in this age of Vacation Shack Modern.

"Survival in this climate is based on an understanding of how to design for the forces of nature," he said one summer morning, looking out from the third-floor widow's walk of his 2,000-square-foot summer house onto Great South Bay, party boats brimming with fishermen in the distance. "The old houses had a sensibility and durability that far outlasts look-at-me architecture."

Samton's house, if not hurricane-proof, is at least hurricane-resistant. The pitched roof and angled shape were a start. Pitched roofs, he said, are an "aerodynamic form," designed not to oppose the wind, in contrast to "presenting yourself as a flat billboard that picks up its entire force."

Then everything had to be built stronger than the balloon-frame construction of typical wooden houses in less windblown settings: a post-and-beam frame, with heavy beams and sturdier windows.

"The thicker the wood and the stronger the connections, the more resistance it has to hurricanes," Samton said. The house is built predominantly of fir, with heavy timbers 6 by 6 inches in section, the joists 3 inches thick, rather than the 1 inches of what he called "post-Levittown plywood."

In looking back to Fire Island's past, Samton could not draw upon the cohesive building style of Block Island or Martha's Vineyard. But among the island's 3,600 or so houses can be found winsome 1920s and 30s beach cottages that architecturally encapsulate languid days and warm salty air.

The island was developed as a sort of middle-class Newport about 50 miles from Manhattan, and its old houses, on small lots averaging less than a quarter acre, possessed a built-in neighborliness, helped partly by the island's pedestrians-only policy, which means no one needs a garage. Traditional Fire Island houses, bearing romantic names like White Wings and Faraway, were typically two stories high (for the views) and had pitched roofs (which also shed water sensibly and provide better air circulation, Samton said), porches (often screened to ward off mosquitos), heavy fir trim (to ward off dampness), cedar shingles and wraparound decks to capture and shield the wind.

It was this style - rather than the flat-roofed "shoe boxes" that proliferated in the 1970s and 80s - that captured Samton's imagination on his first visit in 1962, when he and his wife, Emily, spent three days walking the island's length, visiting friends along the way. After 10 years in New England, where they flirted with the idea of building in the Berkshires, they returned as renters to Fire Island with their three teen-age boys, who are now in their 20s. Samton began seeing anew the island's vernacular architecture - like the cedar-shingled, wide-eaved houses built in Saltaire by the Irish-born master carpenter Mike Coffey. Thinking of the house he would build, Samton traversed the island, sketchbook in hand.

"I began to assemble pieces of houses in my mind," he said. "There is something very pristine and simple about a cottage with a boardwalk, surrounded by nature itself."

His next-door neighbor, Roberta Brandes Gratz, who writes on urban issues, recalls how Samton sat on the front porch of her shingled late 1920s bungalow hour after hour, studying shadows and analyzing the angles of the sunset. "Sometimes while he was designing, he would just stare at my house," she said.

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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