Tour This Laid-Back Fire Island Beach House
Life's too short to miss a summer. On this, Kiki and Drew Shilling agreed, standing on a cleared bayfront lot on a cool day in November and dreaming of moving into their yet-to-be built Fire Island abode by summer. It was an ambitious deadline, to be sure. But summer is the family's prime time, and this ribbon of sand off of New York is their prime spot. Drew grew up coming to the car-free island with his family (who still have homes nearby), and now, 45 summers later, he and Kiki continue the tradition with their daughters, Maggie and Ellie, and son Reid. Barefoot and on two wheels is how things roll here for the month of August. ("You're either July people or August people," Kiki says, "and we're August people.") It's not the place to fret about sandy floors. The main "worry”: where to park all the bikes?
Limited cares, unlimited views, and, yes, bike parking were priorities as the Shillings worked with architect Tom McNeill of Hutker Architects and builder Edward Horton to create a durable, 3,800-square-foot, cedar-shingle cottage. It's one of the few bayside residences in this 130-home village, which dates to 1898 and is accessible only by private ferry. A wooden boardwalk is the village thoroughfare, linking shingled cottages to tennis courts, an ice-cream stand, and a general store, and generations of families to salty, treasured memories.
"The island is only a half-hour away from the city bustle, but it's a throwback to a whole different world," says Drew, who sailed and played tennis in the community's summer camp in his youth, as did his own children. Most of the kids tend to roll out after breakfast and return at supper, as they have for a century or more. The residents aren't much for pretention, and amenities like swimming pools are considered frivolous. Who needs them, when the bay is right there? "This is a place for enjoying family and a simpler life," Drew says.
To honor that ethos, McNeill borrowed from the community's signature element—its boardwalk—to set the cottage's contemporary but low-key tone. "From the boardwalk, a plank ramp gently rises up and creates a platform, giving the house this sense of floating," says the architect, who built in bike parking with discreet slots along the walkway. "You can ride right up and almost into the house."
Inside, natural materials—specifically indigenous white oak (cut in a rift-sawn pattern and used throughout)—reinforce the down-to-earth feel. "We wanted a simple but comfortable house," says Kiki, an interior designer based outside of Boston. The family also requested an open living plan, which McNeill delivered and then some via kitchen slider doors that collapse into the wall, transforming the kitchen and dining areas into alfresco spaces. Windows in the adjoining room capitalize on the view of Great South Bay.
"Sitting in the main room feels like you're sitting on the water," says Kiki, who insisted on a banquette window seat: "It's where everybody loves to be, with pillows at your back and dogs at your feet." And it's great for hosting 40 to 50 people at casual dinner parties, with plates on laps. When not entertaining, Kiki and Drew sit back and catch the waterfront show—boats coming and going, often manned by their own children. Whether sailing, fishing, or clamming, "the kids are in and out of the bay all day long," she says.
To contrast the muted natural materials, including untreated soapstone on the kitchen countertops, Kiki splashed in a sea of blue accents, layering textiles in lapis, marine, and sky. Lighting is mostly in the form of pendants, like the huge Morocco-inspired globe hanging above the dining table. "I used pendants wherever possible," she says. "It's too damp for lamp shades."
The wide-plank floors remain bare for easy sweeping, with the exception of sea grass rugs crafted by a Jamaican weaver in the style of those at Ralph Lauren's estate at Round Hill. In the six bedrooms, too, it's all about uncluttered coziness and accommodating as many guests as possible. A bunk room is tucked into dormers and outfitted in Indian linens, but there are few frills and no TVs—just screened windows, fresh breezes, and natural beauty.
"Here, it's all about breathing in the sea air, hearing the sounds of waves breaking and kids playing in the water," says Drew, who treasures family time on this "spit of sand in the middle of the ocean" where life's pace is lulled and old ways endure. "I love watching my kids sail and enjoy the same things I did growing up. So much has changed, but here, summer is still what it used to be."