Eric von Kuersteiner
The Man Who Cultivates Fire Island Pines
Written by Steve Weinstein
Five years ago, Eric von Kuersteiner bought a large swath of harborfront property in Fire Island Pines from longtime owner John Whyte. For many people reading this, this may not have a great deal of resonance. But for the thousands of gay men who flock to this world-famous beach resort, this was a momentous occasion, the gay equivalent of the Louisiana Purchase or Seward buying Alaska from Imperial Russia.
To most of the world, “Fire Island” is synonymous with “gay,” but in fact, the Pines and its neighbor to the west, Cherry Grove, constitute the part of Fire Island that is primarily gay. Although there are two other owners of commercial property in the Pines, Whyte’s property was far and away the largest and most prominent. It also contained two of the island’s sacred spaces to the Circuit world, the Pavilion and the Blue Whale.
The Pavilion is one of the most storied gay clubs in the world. An unprepossessing wooden building, under Whyte it hosted some of the most memorable DJs on some of their most memorable evenings. It became an incubator of what has since been dubbed “the Fire Island Sound,” and nurtured the careers of several beginning DJs.
The Blue Whale is a restaurant with a large patio-like deck space. There, in a tradition that dates back to the 1970s, people have congregated in the late afternoon for a Tea Dance. The term originated with Whyte, and “tea” has since become synonymous with afternoon dance parties. In between the two buildings are several stores and a hotel. In back of them is a large deck and swimming pool.
Since his purchase of the property, Eric has been engaged in an ambitious long-term plan of renovation, renewal and rebranding. Much of that has been spent in bricks-and-mortar renovation and building. But just as much effort has been expended in the rebranding. Eric has made a concerted effort to reach out to younger gay men, in New York, as well as the rest of the United States and even abroad.
For the first few years, he renovated the old Pavilion (including adding desperately needed air conditioning), before tearing down the dilapidated old building and replacing it with a huge new structure that encompasses Glo Lounge, a gleaming bar with two rooms and sweeping views of Pines Harbor upstairs; and a food store and the Pavilion itself downstairs.
He also took over the gym on the back deck behind the stores, added new equipment and created a room for aerobic machines. He has been slowly assembling the other storefront properties as they become available (some rents were grandfathered under the terms of the sale from Whyte). He also has ambitious plans for Ciel, which is what he calls Whyte’s old Botel, the only hotel in the Pines (and only concrete structure). The Blue Whale has remained pretty much the same, albeit with some spit and polish to help make it gleam.
“When we first bought this place,” Eric said in a recent interview, “first of all, John had let it run into the ground. But it had such a rich history, and I used to have so much fun coming out here”—Eric and his partner in life and business, lawyer Tony Roncalli, have been coming to Fire Island since the ‘80s. “It’s Important to preserve the history but also update it.” His aim is to make it “trendy, but not Soho-trendy; what gay people are looking for. So all of our marketing is geared toward making it a fun, chic place to go for a vacation, targeted to gay men.”
Eric has kept intact the venerable institutions that had become so ingrained in the collective imagination that Edmund White could write a symbolic novel, “Forgetting Elena,” that subtly satirized the rigidity of the social structure and daily routine of the Pines of the early ‘70s and everyone was in on the joke. But Eric has also updated those traditions. Low Tea remains as popular as ever—in fact, judging from the crowds on a recent “off weekend,” even more crowded. High Tea, immediately following, still takes place at the bar above the Pavilion, now Glo Lounge. But he’s also instituted “Middle Tea,” early-evening dancing at the Pavilion itself.
Middle Tea reflects a sea change in the local culture. The Pines was once famous (notorious) for its late-late nights. No one would be caught dead entering the Pavilion much before 1 a.m., and the place didn’t get really crowded until 3 a.m. or so. I remember walking to the grocery store at 10 a.m. one Sunday in the early ‘90s and stopping in to find a far-from-empty dance floor.
“It’s earlier than used to be,” Eric acknowledged. “The younger guys like to drink a lot more than we used to when we were younger. They tend to do things that are a little earlier in the day. We saw a shift over the last couple of years. Low Tea is a much more social atmosphere. As for Middle Tea, the Pavilion is fun, but it’s not late. A lot of guys want to have that dancing experience, but not have to wait until 2 in the morning.”
Not that the Pines has exactly given way to the gay equivalent of the Early Bird Special. There’s still plenty to do at night, but it has to be something that’s fun. The younger guys coming the island enjoy the underwear party on Friday nights. At the Blue Whale, after the last meal has been served, there’s entertainment via New York’s premier drag queens. This summer, Bianca del Rio does a show on Fridays, with a rotating line-up on Saturdays headlined by Porsche on Saturdays; “Showtune Sundays” resembles Splash’s similar night on Mondays.
The big new Pavilion is very much open for business on Saturdays, Sundays and other nights during the big party weeks. “There’s still a crowd for the big-name DJs but less of them than go out than during the day,” Eric says. To entice people to stay up past their bedtime, he has a line-up of Circuit stars, including Tony Moran, Abel and Junior Vasquez. To celebrate the Pavilion’s 30th anniversary, he is also bringing some Fire Island favorites, including Michael Fierman (Sunday, July 5) and Susan Morabito (Sunday, Labor Day). At the teas and the Pavilion itself, he mainly concentrates on bringing out the hottest DJs from New York as well as rest of the country who appeal to a younger crowd.
Having completed the mammoth task of erecting the Pavilion (building anything on Fire Island, where workers and all materials have to be brought over by boat from the mainland, is difficult; building something as huge as the Pavilion rivals the pyramids), he’s now beginning to concentrate on Ciel, the cinderblock hotel that, at three stories tall, dominates the ultra-low-rise harbor.
He finally got a permit (also not an easy task) to redo the place at the end of last summer. In a unique approach to how to rebuild an existing structure, he’s enlisted the services of an architecture professor at Yale University. She in turn has put together a student study group that is spending the summer examining Ciel. The goal is to come up with a plan that is not only aesthetically pleasing but also completely green—part of Eric’s vision to make his properties sustainable. This task force began its work on June 1 and will come up with a comprehensive plan later this summer.
A large part of his effort to attract younger guys and the Circuit crowd in general has focused on Ascension, an oceanfront dance party that will take place Aug. 16. A successor to the much-beloved Morning Party, Ascension takes place right along the ocean during the day. This year, Tony Moran spins the main event, with a full roster of DJs including Manny Lehman, Roland Belmares, Kimberly S and Brett Henrichsen filling out the weekend’s events, from pool parties to Pavilion nights. The events benefit the Task Force. Eric has also taken over the annual Bay Dance on July 4th, to benefit New York’s LGBT Center.
Eric’s efforts to attract a younger demographic (while not ignoring everyone else) appears to be paying off. This year, the island was more crowded Memorial Day Weekend than it has been for years—helped by great weather, always a major factor. He’s looking forward to a busy high season, the period that begins with the huge July 4th Weekend (including the legendary Invasion of the Pines by hundreds of drag queens from Cherry Grove) and ends with Labor Day.
“There are very few places like the Pines,” Eric says. “Old gay destinations like Key West have become very, very mixed. All of our branding and marketing has been aimed to make this a fun, hip, gay destination. We’re trying to bring back people from all over the world.”