Almost 90 years late, Montauk is gaining the popularity that Jazz Age entrepreneur Carl Fisher envisioned when he and his associates bought 9,000 acres of land to develop into a resort community in 1926. Vacationers now flock to the one-time fishing village for its downtown just a stone’s throw away from the ocean and its eclectic mix of upscale and casual offerings.
Mr. Fisher’s vision for Montauk and his influence on the hamlet was discussed at the Montauk Library on Sunday by architect and history buff Richard Sheckman, who presented a brief history of Mr. Fisher’s six years as Montauk’s key developer. The library’s meeting room was packed with community members, curious about the man whose vision created much of what Montauk is today.
Mr. Sheckman, a longtime Montauk resident, said on Sunday that Mr. Fisher’s unmistakable Tudor style architecture has influenced his own work over the years, especially because homeowners desire that distinctive Montauk design style.
“He was about the most influential person in the development of Montauk,” he said. “He had a love for Tudor architecture, but he was a modernist at heart and gave us a cohesive design vocabulary. It’s a tribute to his genius that most of his buildings and roads are still in use today.”
After the real estate boom in Florida burst around 1925, and a hurricane devastated much of Miami Beach in 1926, real estate mogul Mr. Fisher turned his eyes to Montauk, hoping to create the “Miami Beach of the north.” He was well aware that the area was known as a first-class fishing and hunting retreat—the perfect setting for a new resort community.
With help from wealthy friends and associates, he landed in Montauk and began laying out the infrastructure for an entire community. He built well-known structures such as the 178-room Montauk Manor, the Tower Building, which served as his real estate office because it was the highest building in town, and even the Montauk School. Other staples include the Montauk Playhouse, the Montauk Arms, now Sole East, and the Harbormaster’s House on Lake Montauk. Additionally, he built 20 unique houses, as well as homes for his construction crews.
“He was a character and had no lack of energy,” Mr. Sheckman said. “He planned to build an entire community.”
Unfortunately, the combination of the damaging hurricane and the real estate bust, coupled with the stock market crash, left him penniless. He declared bankruptcy in 1932, leaving many of his projects undone. His wealth, once valued at approximately $20 million, had diminished to a mere $40,000 by the time of his death in 1939.
Mr. Fisher, who was born in 1874 in Indiana, lived life in the fast lane—he was an avid race car driver and even helped build the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which seats 210,000, in 1909. In 1913, he sold his company, Prest-O-Lite, which supplied nearly every headlamp on automobiles in the U.S., for $9 million.
That same year, he conceived and helped develop the Lincoln Highway, the first road spanning the entire U.S., from San Francisco to Manhattan. A year later, he was involved with the construction of the Dixie Highway, from Indianapolis to Miami. Seeing potential in Miami as a resort community, he acquired 3,500 acres of swamp land and transformed it into the perfect summer community with several luxury hotels. Always the opportunist, he bought a baby elephant named Rosie, and in 1921, he called together a photo-op, where Rosie served as a “golf caddy” for vacationing President-elect Warren Harding.
“He was very enterprising, ambitious and aggressive,” Mr. Sheckman said of Mr. Fisher. “His career resembled the life cycle of a comet—rising quickly, shining brightly, then falling swiftly.”
Mr. Sheckman’s book of drawings and Carl Fisher history, “Private Residences and Public Buildings from the Carl Fisher Era,” published in 1995, is available for $5 at the Montauk Library. All proceeds of the sale of the books go directly to the library.