From Rudolph to Halston

By: Robert Plunket

Robert Plunket finds a link between our own Sarasota School of Architecture and a 1970s New York style icon.


Halston at home, before one of his almost nightly dinner parties. (Photo by Harry Benson)
Halston in the living room of 101.

Every era leaves behind images in the collective unconscious, mental pictures of the way it looked at its best and worst. For the 1960s we have the shaggy hair and bell-bottom jeans of the hippies, for the 1980s we have the broad shoulders and power look of Dynasty.

 

And for the 1970s we have Halston.

“The Seventies belonged to Halston,” his star on New York’s Fashion Walk of Fame says, and few would argue with that. Halston—his real name was Roy Halston Frowick—designed clothes for the great style setters of the time, including Jacqueline Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli. But there was much more to him than the couturier. He invented the modern fashion industry and became its first billionaire, the precursor of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. He pioneered franchising and branding, turning out everything from luggage and carpeting to Girl Scout uniforms and airliner interiors. He was the first designer to use Ultrasuede. His Halston perfume is the second-biggest-selling fragrance—ever. And he was a key player—perhaps the key player—in the decadent social atmosphere that surrounded Studio 54, when drugs and disco changed the way the world had fun—sometimes too much fun.

He was a man at the very pinnacle of style, perhaps the greatest American designer ever, the most important tastemaker of his time. So an important question remains. Where did he live? What was his house like? How did it express his look and his vision?

Sarasotans may be surprised at the answer. Halston’s house was pure Sarasota School of Architecture. It was designed by Paul Rudolph, the master of the genre, and bears an extraordinary family resemblance to the houses Rudolph created in Sarasota during the 1950s. Could it be that our own, often overlooked Sarasota School was actually the precursor of ’70s glamour?

The Halston house at 101 E. 63rd St. on New York’s East Side (known by its nickname, “101”) was built in 1966 for a gay couple: Alexander Hirsch, a real estate lawyer, and his partner, Lewis Turner. Technically it was a renovation of an old carriage house, but in reality nothing of the original structure remains.

When Rudolph designed it, he had just finished his tenure as Dean of Architecture at Yale. He had been away from Sarasota for eight years. His talent was too big for a small town in Florida, and he was now recognized as one the pre-eminent architects in the country. His output at this time was mostly large commercial and academic buildings, with fewer and fewer residential commissions. But 101 was a job he couldn’t turn down. It was one of the few private homes in Manhattan—maybe the only one—designed in the modernist style since the end of World War II.

From the outside it’s not much to look at. Just some well-proportioned rectangles, in steel and smoked glass. It even has the ultimate residential banality, a two-car garage door facing the street—which in Manhattan may be the greatest luxury of all.

It could be anything: a dentist’s office, a small industrial building, a substation of the Sanitation Department. Rudolph had used facades like this before. The famous Umbrella House on Lido Key (1953) incorporates many of the same design elements.

Once you entered through the unprepossessing front door, you traveled down a low-ceilinged hallway with a slate floor until you suddenly reached the living room. Here the “wow” factor hit. The ceiling was 27 feet high and crowned with a skylight. The rear wall was glass, two stories in height, and built like a greenhouse with a profusion of jungle-like bamboo. A stairway climbed the west wall—a floating stairway with no railing. It looked dangerous, and it was. Lewis Turner was so afraid of it he only climbed up it 10 times during the six years he lived in the house.

Upstairs were four bedrooms, a rooftop terrace and the master suite, tucked away and completely private. It was an austere, almost monastic space, with an Ultrasuede-covered bed facing floor-to-ceiling mirrors. There was no clutter and there were no knickknacks anywhere in the house, other than some silver ashtrays designed by Elsa Perretti, Halston’s close friend and muse. There were paintings and photographs—mostly by Andy Warhol—lining several of the corridors and hallways. The color scheme was muted: black, gray, cream, taupe, putty. The décor, such as it was, came from the profusion of orchid plants and careful attention to lighting. Ethereal cathedral-like effects were achieved by Rudolph’s placement of windows and skylights, and each evening, even when Halston was home alone, the houseboy would light more than 100 votive candles.

Paul Rudolph on Siesta Key; the living room of Rudolph’s Milam House in Ponte Vedra Beach, where multiple levels form the “conversation pit” that became such a popular feature of stylish homes in the 1970s. (Library of Congress & Joseph W. Molitor/Avery Libray)
Paul Rudolph / Milam house living room.

But of course Halston was rarely home alone. Almost every evening there was a small dinner party, during which the same menu was invariably served—caviar with a baked potato, followed by cocaine. After dinner it was time to head to Studio 54 for dancing and more drugs, plus the notorious sexual encounters in the balcony and the bathrooms. The disco was almost a visual extension of 101, with dark, monochromatic walls and banquettes for lounging, with the dramatic effects being achieved by the lighting and the glamorous clientele.

The cream of the design world flocked to 101, and its look soon became the look of chic New York. Retail spaces and restaurants were redone with low-slung horizontal lines, muted color schemes and pinpoint lighting. Suddenly everywhere you looked you saw a single orchid in a pinpoint spotlight. The style was even given a name—high-tech. Susan Slesin and Joan Kron’s 1978 book of the same title contained many of the most chic examples, all based on gray or black carpeting, the use of industrial objects, metal restaurant equipment and banquetted seating areas.

Exactly how can this style be attributed to Paul Rudolph? On the one hand, all he did was design Halston’s house. But there was such a synchronicity of vision between the two men that it’s hard to tell where one stopped and the other began. Halston made very few changes to the house after he bought it in 1974. He even kept the Rudolph-designed platform seating. He did add the bamboo greenhouse, but hired Rudolph to design it. And he also demanded a better heating system. The house as built had only electrical heat (Rudolph was a true Sarasotan—he understood how to cool a house but certainly not how to heat one), but the frugal Midwesterner in Halston was appalled by the $3,000-a-month electricity bills.

Rudolph’s Florida houses all hint at what was to come at 101, but none so strongly as the Milam House in Ponte Vedra Beach. Here his use of levels came fully into play. The Milam living room has at least six different levels, and, like 101, it is long and narrow and soars upward, with light coming from above. Built in 1962, it is more solid-looking and robust than the earlier homes. It’s also dependent on air-conditioning. Cooling breezes, which the Sarasota houses were designed to catch, are no longer an issue. Technology has won.

Above, the Halston home at 101 E. 63rd St. as it looks today. (The home is listed for $38.5 million by Noble Black, Bonnie Pfeifer Evans and Carmen Marques Perez of the Corcoran Group. 212-444-7926; corcoran.com, listing No. 2259675.)
Current interiors of 101.

The Milam living room is essentially a great big conversation pit. One of the ’70s’ major contributions to architecture was the concept of the conversation pit, a slightly sunken area of the living room where one would sit and talk with guests. (There’s an old architecture joke about a house that had a second, smaller conversation pit. That one was merely for small talk.) The Halston house, while it has no pit, offers the same effect with its built-in platform seating.

The story of Halston ends sadly, as it did for so many of that time and place. As part of his franchising business, he sold the rights to his name to Norton Simon, who sold it to another conglomerate, until it was finally owned by Beatrice Foods. A licensing deal with JC Penney, revolutionary at the time, backfired when his high-end stores and customers left him in droves. They wanted exclusivity, not mass market. And after Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, a new style started to emerge. It was the power look: bold colors and patterns, big silhouettes, ruffles and flounces—yet the conservative ruffles and flounces of big Republican money.

The other sea change was the advent of AIDS. The design world has always been the purview of gay men, and in the 1970s, gay culture flourished as never before. For the first time, being gay was a plus. One’s sexuality no longer needed to be hidden, and for a while the coolest thing you could be in New York City was a gay man. There was an explosion of the gay aesthetic in design, retailing, restaurants and music. Disco, then considered “gay rock,” took over the music business. YMCA is a prime example. How could a song about the joys of gay cruising cross over into the mainstream and become the anthem of the period? The gay community in Greenwich Village and Fire Island could only shake their heads in astonishment over what they were accomplishing.

But by the early 1980s it was all over. AIDS had decimated and politicized the gay community. Halston died in 1990, alone, in self-imposed exile in San Francisco. Rudolph, who was also gay but much more discreet about it, entered the last stage of his career, designing a series of enormous commercial buildings in the Far East.

The Deering residence
Deering residence on Casey Key.

101 was bought by German playboy Gunther Sachs, heir to the Opel automobile fortune and the former husband of Brigitte Bardot. He lightened the place up, putting in wood floors, big paintings of his girlfriend, Claudia Schiffer, and some rather forgettable furniture, poorly arranged. As one of the characters in Boys in the Band, the groundbreaking gay play, said, “It takes a fairy to make something pretty.” Gunther didn’t have the touch. He committed suicide in 2011, and now the house is back on the market. The asking price is $38.5 million.

But if 101 is the most famous Rudolph house, it isn’t necessarily the most beautiful. That honor would go to the Deering Residence on Casey Key, built in 1958.

From the exterior it has a lot in common with 101, including a rectangular grid pattern on the façade in pretty much the same proportions as used in the Manhattan house. There is even a low-slung garage set to one side. But it is the home’s interior that sets it apart.

I vividly remember coming across it one day years ago, when it was on the market and still in its original condition. I had no idea what it was; I thought it was just a big modern beach house that was slightly past its prime. Then I walked in the front door.

The living room was vast and so filled with sunlight reflecting off the Gulf that the space literally glowed. It seemed to hang over the water. There was no furniture, just the naked architecture, with every level, every detail so perfect in relation to the whole that it set off vibrations of beauty and delight. You sensed that there were lessons to be learned from this space, lessons about how beauty is created. And more important, it felt like home. I felt as if I had walked into the home I had always been waiting for. The same way, I’m certain, that Halston felt when he first walked into 101.

 

Channeling Sarasota on Fire Island

Sarasota Fire Island (Michael Weber & Horace Gifford Estate)
Gifford houses on Fire Island.

 

It’s ironic that the greatest collection of Sarasota-style houses is not in Sarasota and was designed by an architect with no connection to the town.

Horace Gifford, who died of AIDS in 1992, designed more than 100 beach homes on Long Island in the 1960s and ’70s, the great majority in the gay resort community of Fire Island Pines. Stylistically they are uncannily similar to the Sarasota homes of Paul Rudolph, and they were designed for a similar clientele—people who wanted a sophisticated modern second home that was built with vacation and leisure time in mind and was perfectly suited to a sandy beach environment. Gifford and Rudolph knew each other but never worked together.

Still, Gifford, who was 20 years younger than Rudolph, was clearly influenced by the older architect, continuing the use of the elements pioneered by Rudolph in Sarasota. Those elements include simplicity in design, perfect proportions, floor-to-ceiling glass and materials chosen to suit a casual lifestyle—masonry in Sarasota, wood on Long Island. Take a look a the examples below; and to learn more, visit horacegifford.org.

 


Robert Plunket won an award for “Best Criticism” from the South Florida Society of Professional Journalists for a piece about Sarasota architecture in last year’s Platinum issue.