Saltaire Homes: From Coffey to Contemporary
By Jeffrey Salzberger

Saltaire is “the summer home of sensible people,” or so it was called by the early boosters of the small community. In 1910, real estate operators O.C. Loucks and L.E. Bliss, who were active in the early development of Miami Beach, bought property on the island from the Von Glahn family and started the Fire Island Beach Development Company. The piece of land they purchased went from bay to ocean and had a frontage of 3,360 feet on either end. It is the widest part of the island, and it includes the natural harbor, Clam Pond Cove (the only one of its kind here).

Potential buyers were lured in the beginning by free ferry rides from Bay Shore to observe the properties. Within the first year the company had laid down miles of sidewalk, sunk an artesian well, installed water pipes and a gas plant. They also built the first structures: A casino and six cottages.

Through 1912 and 1913, several hundred lots were sold, and more than 100 cottages were erected. The free ferry rides were still being offered, and the service helped to boost sales further, as the “Stranger” and the “Eladio” made limited hourly trips across the bay. They would leave Bay Shore every hour between 6 and 9 a.m., and would return hourly from Saltaire between 5 and 8 p.m. With this intense boosterism, the summer population swelled to 1500 over the course of only three years.

With the population growing, the small village started to fall into disrepair. The development company was claiming that it lacked funds for routine maintenance of sidewalks and other essentials. It was at this point, on the eve of the Great War, that Saltaire property owners organized and began pushing for incorporation. In 1917, incorporation finally happened, and on a cold November afternoon at the yacht club, a blizzard looming on the horizon, the first village officials were elected. They ran unopposed due to the tiny, close-knit population.

The Brooklyn Eagle reported on November 14, 1917: “There is not an incorporated village in the state that has a smaller number of inhabitants ... For more than six months of the year, this village has no inhabitants whatsoever, all the property owners being in winter quarters.” At this point, Saltaire Village contained 175 acres of land and an assessed value of $90,000.

The early days saw the rise of a prolific builder — Mike Coffey. He was born in Galway, Ireland in 1888, and came to the United States in 1913, settling on Fire Island almost immediately. The builder found work with the Beach Development Company, and before the pivotal year of 1938, Coffey had built more than half the village homes. The mark of cottages built by Mike Coffey, dubbed “Coffey Houses,” is their solid look. They have a three vertical windowpane pattern in the upper part of the window, and a dramatic sweep to their roofs. Dormers on his cottages come from a Cape Cod style influence, and there are diamond shaped windows upstairs that shed light on cozy sleeping porches. They are inviting, hospitable and durable.

Seventy-five homes were washed away during the ‘38 storm, quite a few of them Coffey cottages. Many however, survived, and are still there today. Coffey went on to repair those that he could, and to rebuild others. He was adding to the mark he had already made on the young village.

Growth in Saltaire was never out of hand. The depression slowed it down, and after that, the big storm, then World War II. These outside factors, however, were not the only reasons for controlled growth. Hugh O’Brien, Saltaire Trustee and News columnist, called it “a slow community,” with growth being measured and thoughtful. There are restrictions placed on commercial zoning, and there has always been an emphasis on open space and on family.

The period from the late 1950s to 1990 witnessed significant growth in the village. This, as well as shifts in architectural style however, did not change the character of the community, according to O’Brien.

New architectural styles emerged to honor the legacy left behind by Mike Coffey when he sadly passed away in February, 1963, at the age of 75. Since then, there have been many architects contributing to the unique neighborhood feel in Saltaire. Homes borrowing from the model of architect Peter Samton, long-time island resident, integrate the Coffey cottage design into a modern form. They allow for more light than an older cottage, of course conform to FEMA standards, but still fit well into the natural landscape. Still others borrow from the likes of Roger C. Ferri, who designed a home on Fire Island that sits on a trellis base, giving it the appearance of a balcony with a view of a seascape. There is also the home of William and Milly Johnstone in Saltaire, which reflects a Japanese style. Hugh O’Brien also described a certain type of home as “faux style, in the tradition of old Saltaire,” but they are still unique, even though a few years of weather on the island ages them to the point where they conform to the landscape. As artist Frank O. Braynard said of newer homes built to imitate the older ones: “they appear to rise naturally out of the sand and brush.”

Saltaire is a “slow community,” and although it is quite a bit pricier now than at the time of its inception and initial appraisal of $90,000, it remains a family community and a destination for professionals eager to escape the hustle and bustle of New York City. Those who live in Saltaire are always proud of, and always emotionally attached to the homes they own.