In the opening lines of Frank O’Hara’s 1958 poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island,” the sun implores the poet to get out of bed already, insisting it doesn’t have all day to wait around. The poet apologizes, explaining he had a late night, and the sun scoffs that most people wait on it to make an appearance, not the other way around.
This moment of magical realism illustrates the close relationship residents of Fire Island, New York, have with the elements—the sand, the ocean, and, yes, the sun—and the pull of the outdoors there. That same spirit is reflected in the oceanfront beach house of Britt-Louise Gilder, her husband Jamal, and their four children (aged 4 to 15).
As a child, Gilder spent time visiting Fire Island, a narrow barrier isle off Long Island’s Atlantic coast, and returned as an adult when she sought a getaway outside New York City. She wanted to find a place she could get to quickly, that was near the ocean, and where no cars were allowed. That Gilder also had family with homes on Fire Island made it a no-brainer.
After renting for a few summers, Gilder gravitated toward a particular neighborhood close to the shore, and fell in love with a circa-1968 beach house that nestles into dunes and overlooks the water. It sat just far enough off the island’s main drags to limit foot traffic to those who lived on the Island and their visitors, and there was a familial closeness across the community. The home had a welcoming, lived-in feeling, says Gilder, and there was minimal light pollution.
While the location was ideal, and the home had character, they were looking to brighten the space, add more room for their growing family, and reorient the house’s entertaining spaces. So, once it came time to renovate, Gilder called on a firm she had worked with on a few projects in New York: Brooklyn-based Delson or Sherman Architects PC.
Architect Jeff Sherman, principal at the firm, felt a personal connection to the project. “I have strong feelings about Fire Island,” he explains, citing a summer spent there during architecture school, helping a friend build a home. “I have a real fondness for the elemental nature of the island, and that there’s not really much to it, [just] ocean and sand and sky. Manifesting that in architecture was really exciting.”
Because of the island’s status as a National Seashore, and the resulting complexity of permitting and regulation, the renovation took close to two years. But the end result, which includes additional bedrooms and bathrooms, was exactly what Gilder and her family were hoping it would be.
Gilder wanted the home to provide space for her family and friends to gather, mostly outdoors, and she and Sherman agreed on a “beach shack” vibe. The renovated home wound up “looking like a collection of shacks, all jammed together” according to Sherman. That rambling feeling extends from the single-pitched ceilings (fir boards) to the whitewashed floors (oak) to an exterior that looks as if it’s paneled in classic vertically laid strips of wood (it’s actually cement siding).
Protecting the home against moisture from the ocean (and, more generally, nature’s might) was top of mind: The house has a metal roof and projectile-proof hurricane windows. The team at Delson or Sherman rebuilt the deck and pool on wood pilings to align with the main floor and created new points of entry to access them. They also installed new cabinetry and countertops, as well as swapping out some interior fixtures and tiling. An exterior wall around the expansive, nearly wrap-around deck provides privacy and allows the entryway to function as an extension of the living space.
With the architecture refreshed, Gilder knew she wanted to give the interiors a lift. For that she turned to interior designer Alexandra Angle, whose work Gilder knew from her cousins’ Angle-decorated home, also on Fire Island.
Angle explains that while she works on both contemporary and traditional homes, she always tends to use color, and strives to respect both the way a family lives and the architecture of their home. One of Angle’s goals for Gilder’s space was that it wouldn’t need much upkeep, so she didn’t create too many layers—furnishings, art, or other objects—the way she might in other homes.
“[The family is] quite playful, informal, bright, and sunny, which is sort of what we wanted to capture in a summer house,” Angle says. “It’s right on the beach, everyone’s barefoot all the time.” No matter how nice the home or how beautiful the interior, Gilder adds, it needs to be comfortable because nobody there is in more than bathing suits, shorts, or pajamas.
Angle chose white for the walls to help all of its colorful accents stand out, each one their own graphic splash on top of a neutral palette. These bursts of color keep your eyes bouncing around the first floor, from a bright yellow Giovanni Travasa pendant lamp over the dining table to the vertical backsplash of Douglas Watkin tile behind the fireplace. “The interior of the main floor is really a way to facilitate being outside,” Gilder explains.The space is sparsely, yet thoughtfully, decorated with Angle’s picks.
When picking furnishings for the home, Angle was thinking about how damp it would be, and what might hold up to it, as well as to a group of young children. This concern also led her to add numerous wall hooks as a storage solution throughout the home since there are few closets. Additionally, Angle had to consider actually getting things onto the island, which is only accessible by ferry. It didn’t stop her from bringing in larger items, like the custom living room couch, the headboard in the master bedroom, a Hans Wegner rocking chair, Blue Dot twin beds, and a Giovanni Travasa hanging chair.
Two bedrooms on the first floor lead out to the pool and patio, and a staircase visible at the entry leads up to two more bedrooms and the master suite, which overlooks the ocean. A diverging set of stairs to each area separates these rooms. While Gilder envisioned the home to be open to everyone, with very little private space, she says the sitting room off the master bedroom is a place she can go where people aren’t congregating. “You have to really seek [private space] out in a way,” says Gilder.
Otherwise, the home allows its inhabitants to relax together as a family. And, perhaps more importantly, it serves as a gateway to the outdoors. “Nature,” says Gilder, “always wins on Fire Island.”