An aerial photo taken in 1983 shows the earliest buildings in Seaside. Photo courtesy Didon Comer

Town founder’s vision of a new urban community leads to the first of its kind

The Seaside Story

There was a time when families coming to the beach stayed in simple cottages, in beach towns where porch-sitting and strolling were activities at least as important as swimming and sunbathing.

In 1946, on one of the family’s summer pilgrimages to the shore, Robert Davis’ grandfather, J.S. Smolian, bought 80 acres near Seagrove Beach on Florida’s northwest coast. His intention was to build a summer camp for his employees, but his business partner wanted no part of what must have seemed like a worthless tract of sand. The Smolian family continued coming to that same shore every summer, and occasionally J.S. would take young Robert to the fields at the western edge of Seagrove Beach and walk around the tract.

Robert Davis grew up to be a student of history as well as business, and became an award-winning builder/developer in Miami in the 1970s. When he considered making plans for the property near Seagrove, he naturally thought about idyllic family vacations along the same coast as the small cottages the family had stayed in. If he closed his eyes and let his mind wander back, he could almost feel gentle sea breezes evaporating the moisture on his skin as he sat on a porch rocker after a shower at the end of a day on the beach, absorbed in stories being told by grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

Seaside is Born

The idea of Seaside started with the notion of reviving Northwest Florida’s building tradition, which had produced wood-frame cottages so well adapted to the climate that they enhanced the sensual pleasure of life by the sea. Cottages accommodated generations of family members, and children were able to sleep on the porch. These cottages had deep roof overhangs, ample windows, and cross ventilation in all rooms. They were built of wood and other time-tested materials and with reasonable maintenance, could last several generations.

When Robert and his wife, Daryl Davis, asked Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk to help them plan a community that would revive the tradition that had produced these buildings, it was soon clear that considerable research needed to be done. No one knew how to revive a building tradition. So a number of journeys were made through the South, and especially through Florida, with cameras, sketchpads and tape measures, until the architects and developers felt confident that the basic rules for making these buildings were understood. Most of the buildings were studied in the context of small towns, and gradually the idea evolved that the small town was the appropriate model to use for laying out streets and squares and locating the various elements of the community.

Eighty acres, it turned out, was the ideal size for a small town or a quarter of a city. Leon Krier, the noted urban designer who had written so eloquently about the restoration of the traditional city, had used a diagram, which showed that 80 acres is the area encompassed within a quarter-mile radius. This, in turn, was the distance a person would comfortably walk on a daily basis to go to work, to shop, or to go out to eat.

Early photos taken in 1983 show Seaside in its infancy, but growing quickly. Photos courtesy Didon Comer

A Town Built for People

A sensibly laid-out town or city would, in fact, have all of the necessities and pleasures of daily existence within walking distance of one’s residence. You might have to use mechanical transportation to go to the opera, but you should not need to use a car to get a quart of milk nor should you have to be a chauffeur for your children.

Two houses were built in Seaside before the master plan for the town was taken beyond the conceptual stage. It was important first to test the marketplace and to see whether a house that shared a beach at the end of a street could be sold for a price almost equal to that of a beachfront condominium. The conventional wisdom in 1982 was that it could not be done, and that the additional constraint of strict architectural controls on all construction would be a deterrent to sales.

A pavilion was also built as a gateway to the sea and to serve as a symbol of the neighborhood sharing of the beach. The Tupelo Beach Pavilion has now evolved into a symbol for Florida’s few remaining unspoiled beaches.

Click here to continue A History of Seaside Part 2

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