How the vision of an imaginative pioneer changed the once sleepy fishing village of Montauk.
A postcard view of Carl Fisher’s Tudor-style Montauk Manor circa 1930
It is hard to fathom that the main legacy of Carl Fisher’s Montauk, as delivered by Google, is the rental listing of a vacation home the man built in the mid-1920s. Unfathomable because, in 1925, “Crazy Carl Fisher,” as he was known, bought all 10,000 acres of the Montauk peninsula for $2.5 million. After adding another $7 million, he went about building his dream, which was to create the “most fabulous summer resort ever imagined in the western world.”
Born in Indiana in 1874, this visionary entrepreneur had already created a fabulous winter resort called Miami Beach, essentially making a tropical Eden out of a steaming stretch of swampland.
“That man Fisher must be crazy! The Hoosier fool is trying to make a tourist resort out of that crocodile hole,” an incredulous Floridian was quoted as having said in a biography of Fisher that appeared in Coronet magazine in 1949.
But the crocodile hole turned into a booming success—once mangroves were cleared and sand from Biscayne Bay was modeled into parks, golf courses and polo fields. Lakes and canals were dug, boulevards were laid out, and luxurious hotels opened. The American Riviera was born, and Mr. Miami, as PBS once dubbed him, made millions.
Fisher circa 1929
Having already ticked off a series of successful business ventures before Miami, such as revolutionizing the headlights in early cars, initiating the building of the Lincoln Highway, the country’s first coast-to-coast road (followed by the north-to-south Dixie Highway), as well as spearheading the creation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500, Fisher was not one to idly loaf about.
Perhaps noticing that the rich have always been migratory creatures, he decided he would develop the “Miami Beach of the North,” in a place called Montauk. “Miami in the winter, Montauk in the summer,” was Fisher’s promise to the high rollers who had flocked to his Miami paradise.
He arrived in Montauk in 1925, at a time when the area was little more than undulating pastureland shaped by 300 years of agriculture. But as the louche lifestyle that inspired The Great Gatsby raged on about 65 miles west of Montauk, the area became increasingly popular with the well-heeled for hunting and fishing expeditions. There was little in the way of creature comforts, however, with no electricity or running water and less than 150 inhabitants in town.
With Montauk about three times the size of Miami Beach, Fisher embarked on a venture he imagined would be the culmination of his life’s ambitions. Borrowing against his Miami properties to subsidize Montauk’s development, with a crew of about 800 men, he set about creating roads, installing sewers and power lines, and laying the infrastructure for a modern village at the high point of the Jazz Age.
Between 1926 and 1932, amid a whirlwind of development and construction, Fisher constructed about 30 Tudor-style buildings, including the lavish Montauk Manor with 178 modern guest rooms. The tallest building in the area—then called the Carl Fisher Office Building, which was to be the headquarters of his Montauk development project—is known today as the Tower, a residential condominium complex in the center of town.
The Montauk Administration Building under construction in 1927
A yacht club to lure the grand vessels of the Astors and the Vanderbilts was next. Fisher created the Montauk Harbor and its yacht basin by dredging the freshwater Lake Montauk, blasting open a channel from Block Island Sound and forming a channel to the sea. He also built a clubhouse and a causeway to Star Island. The Star Island Yacht Club and Marina remains in operation today, capable of docking oceangoing vessels up to 150 feet in length.
The sporting gentleman’s playground he was developing naturally necessitated a golf course, so he built Montauk Downs. And because the weather could be so fickle, he built the largest indoor tennis complex in the country, with 12 courts under a glass ceiling (it’s the Playhouse today), as well as a polo club.
He had planned for just about everything except the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. Montauk, his swank international resort, went bust, and the town’s real estate boom was over.
“Montauk was Carl’s first and only failure,” wrote Jane Fisher in a biography of her late husband, who died in Miami in 1939 with only $40,000 to his name.
But his vision extended further than even he could have dreamed. Fisher actually paved the way for Montauk to develop in the 1970s into a real tourist town full of hotels, motels, souvenir shops, restaurants, fishing boats and even a drive-in hamburger joint. It became the antithesis of what Fisher had imagined—a quiet fishing town and famous surfing spot. It felt like real America.
For a while, anyway: Then came new dot-com money and media moguls, and suddenly Montauk seemed to hark back to the days when F. Scott Fitzgerald called the East End “that slender riotous island.” Montauk, that once scuffed-up little hamlet, is booming again, with more than a touch of theme-park whimsy.
Carl Fisher’s gentrification quest seems to have been finally realized. He would be proud. Or would he?
ALL PHOTOS © MONTAUK LIBRARY; ADMINISTRATION BUILDING PHOTO FROM THE CARLETON KELSEY COLLECTION; PORTRAIT COURTESY OF THE WOLFSONIAN–FIU, MIAMI BEACH, FLORIDA