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Prince of the Pines

Is a gay ghetto still relevant in the summer of 2010? One 27-year-old real-estate investor thinks so.

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From left: The Pines, 1976; The Pines, 2010.   

Of the seventeen resort microclimates of Fire Island arranged along the picturesque, deer-overrun sandbar a short train-and-ferry commute from New York City, the Pines is easily the most fabled. Imagine, as many young men have, an entirely gay beach town full of contradictions—glamorous and skanky, bacchanalian and fussy, semi-nude and upmarket—a place where, as Andrew Holleran put it in his 1978 Gatsby-inspired gay novel Dancer From the Dance, “You may lose your heart. Or mind. Or reputation. Or contact lenses.”

Now imagine being 27 and owning the bars, restaurants, and the nightclub at the heart of it all.

Seth Weissman grew up in Westchester County. His family summered a few towns down Fire Island, in kid-friendly Ocean Beach, a suburban world away from the hedonistic glamour of the Pines. The first time he visited the Pines was five years ago, when he was just out of Wharton and about to go work for Goldman Sachs as a real-estate specialist. “It was sort of like the Willy Wonka movie from the seventies with Gene Wilder, when he sings, like, the song ‘Pure Imagination’ and gives the tour of the factory,” he remembers excitedly. “That was what it was for me: life as it really should be and could be.” He also came to see in it a business opportunity: a former gay ghetto getaway updated to appeal to men who barely experienced the closet, or for that matter know much of the tragedy of AIDS that so defined the place a generation ago.

Born as a nudist colony in the thirties, it was at its most thrilling and illicit as a vigorous centrifuge of fashion, liberation, and disco in the seventies and eighties (serving as a stop-off for Broadway and vaudeville stars somewhere in between). Its harbor commercial district still bears the thumbprint of Ziegfeld girl Peggy Fears, a lesbian who built a yacht club and hotel there in the fifties. In 1966, she sold the complex to John Whyte, a male model who lured the fashion and celebrity sets and created the rigorous social regimen that gives the place its adult-camp-like vibe to this day. It all revolved around his bar-hotel-disco complex: “Low Tea” cocktails and dance party, which today starts at five; “High Tea,” upstairs after eight; then following dinner and cocktails at home, dancing at the club after midnight.

Just before he succumbed to cancer, in 2004, Whyte sold it all to longtime Pinesmen Anthony Roncalli and Eric von Kuersteiner. The place had gotten tired: The population was maturing and more affluent, converting many of the modernist homes arrayed along the wooden sidewalks that snake through the pine groves from share houses into private residences. “The Pines had become old,” says Von Kuersteiner. “So my whole idea was to bring younger guys out, the next generation, to experience what we experienced—having fun in a share house, going to the beach.” He hired a marketing consultant and spent about $80,000 trying to rebrand the Pines complex as “much more hip, young, and contemporary,” he says. He claims they tripled its revenue.

The wave of youth was welcomed by old-timers, but other changes were not. The Pines is a small, gossipy community, and people whispered that Von Kuersteiner and Roncalli wielded their power too fiercely, and complained that they needlessly closed the florist and hardware store and stopped selling frozen drinks. Meanwhile, during the summer of 2008, Weissman was getting to know author, former TV journalist, and decades-long Pinesman Andrew Kirtzman, 49, who owns a guest house there. They spent time talking over how they wanted to one day develop a gay property together.

Weissman knew real estate. From Goldman he went on to work for the hedge fund Perry Capital and then to start a real-estate firm, Weissman Equities, with his brother. Weissman could see the Pines wasn’t operating at peak resort performance. Take the Hotel Ciel, once called the Botel but renamed and lightly done over by the previous owners. “It’s the only hotel in the Pines, and it had shared bathrooms and exposed cinderblocks,” he says, and the prices were well over $300 a night. But “there was 12 percent occupancy last summer, so it was almost irrelevant what the rate was, because they weren’t getting it.” As for the Blue Whale restaurant, the food was poorly regarded and tables were left empty after Low Tea, another obvious inefficiency. The layout wasn’t logical for flow between the bars, either, creating bottlenecks for the thirsty men in their Parke & Ronen suits and Havaianas.

Kirtzman knew Jon Wilner, the Pines real-estate broker who handled Whyte’s sale of the properties in 2004 (for about $5 million). Weissman and Kirtzman brought in a third partner, developer Matthew Blesso (who’s 37 and decidedly metrosexual, but not gay), and this past March bought it all for $17 million (Weissman’s grandparents, who knew Whyte, were among the other backers). They busily got to work. By Memorial Day, they were well into a $2 million–plus rehab. The Pavilion got new lighting, a new sound system, projection screens, and a catwalk-style staircase that makes it easier to people-watch. The club, pool deck (from which the gym equipment was evicted), and Canteen (formerly the Bay Bar) are now all connected. And, thanks to Kirtzman, frozen drinks are back! Prices were reduced 30 percent at the hotel (they now start at $278 a night), which will be more thoroughly updated in the fall.


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