Labors of Love, Historic F.I. Homes
By Jeffrey Salzberger

When you stand upon the boardwalks that lead over the dunes, you can turn, face north, and look down upon the houses. Each has a life all its own. A dwelling’s personality arises from the emotional attachment the owner or architect has for it. In a place like Fire Island, which conjures different but deep feelings for everyone who lives here, it makes for an interesting mix of houses. What follows, is a profile of a few of our historic homes. Some are still with us, some are not, but all were someone’s labor of love.

The Keep Cottage and the Mugler House

Both of these homes were built in the spring of 1930, and were lauded for their beauty and unique style in an issue of the Fire Island Beacon from July of that same year. In Ocean Beach, a newly married couple, Mary and Richard Mugler designed their home with the help of an architect in English country style, with eaves that reached almost to the ground. In Seaview, Charles C. Keep had John Anderson build his home, called “For Keeps.”

This was the start of an architectural vernacular for the island. Before this time, according to observers, was the era of the “ugly shack.” Beauty was often sacrificed for the sake of utility. These two homes, designed by architects and carefully planned, were both durable and easy on the eyes. They marked the beginning of the beach bungalow with a unique style.

The Captain’s House

The Jiler family occupies a house in Seaview, which is possibly the oldest in that community. It was built in 1890 by Captain Gilbert Smith. He used it as a boarding house for the workers at his fish processing plant, and was rumored to have walked upon the roof, observing his operations with a spy glass.

In the early 1900s, the house was purchased from Captain Smith by the Pringle family, then by the Arbatti family in the early 1940s. Milton Jiler purchased the dwelling in the mid fifties for $20,000 as a romantic gesture. His wife Daisy was fond of the place from the moment she first set eyes on it.

The house has changed quite a bit from its early days. Perhaps the biggest alteration is that what was once the front of the house is now the back. When Beachwald was laid down, it ran behind the house, so a new door was added, kind of turning the house around. This is the reason it appears to have an unadorned facade.

The house might attribute its longevity to the fact that it was built upon a rise, leaving it untouched by flooding. It also contains much of its original, sturdy material. The walls are made with narrow grooved hard wood, much more durable than mass produced modern construction material.

There is a stone, which for years graced the front yard of the house. The stone has etched in it the year of the home’s construction, “1890.” Over the years, it has moved to the back yard, been turned into a bench, and been worn down by the people who have sat on it and admired the beautiful home.

The Coast Guard Shack

Long before the Pines, when the area was called Lone Hill Beach, there was a Coast Guard station rising out of the dunes. Shacks were built for the people stationed there and for their families. The shack pictured here was built in the 1920s, and was purchased from the Coast Guard in 1939, for the staggering price of $75, by Joe Stoye.

There may be a few of these shacks left today, but they are unrecognizable with the add-ons and overgrowth. When these houses were purchased, they were often times so small that the chicken coup might have been converted into a bedroom before additions were made by a resident looking for more comfort. Additions which eventually gave each shack the unique touch of its owner.

The Driftwood House

Hiding in the dunes at the eastern end of the island, about a mile and a half from Davis Park, sat a small cottage. It was occupied by an artist from New York City named Karen Clarke, and built entirely of weathered planks and driftwood which had washed up on the beach. It was the handiwork of her then-boyfriend, and later husband, Sven.

He constructed it in secret, piece by piece as he found what he needed, either in the water or on the shore. The furniture was all abandoned from around the island, and the small, dilapidated boat Sven found on the beach became a front yard flower pot. There was even a complicated network of boardwalks surrounding the makeshift structure. It was the true definition of a love nest.

During the 1960s it was threatened with destruction by the National Seashore. Clarke was quoted in an issue of the Fire Island News regarding her creation. “This house can’t be destroyed. It came from the sea, and it belongs to the sea and to the Island. In the end it should just fall into pieces in the sand. It was built of love ... and it shouldn’t be destroyed, except by time.” The driftwood home was a part of the family, and borrowed its personality not only from the people who built it and resided in it, but from the island itself, just like most of our houses.