Even though the northwest Florida town of Seaside is just 30 years old, its roots dig much deeper. They nestle into our childhood memories. They climb all the way back to the Southern towns of yesteryear. And they burrow further still into a rich architectural and city planning legacy that had until recently fallen out of fashion.
Seaside, located in South Walton County, began as an idea – a noble attempt to once again make real all of those references, urban designer Mark Schnell tells me at the start of his two-hour walking tour.
"Back in 1981, when Robert Davis decided to develop this half-mile stretch of beachfront, the trend would have been condo tower here, condo tower there," he says.
"If visitors come and take away some of the ideas of Seaside with them and apply them to their own hometowns, I think he's very happy." – Urban designer Mark Schnell of Seaside developer Robert Davis
In seeking a more old-fashioned norm, Davis was in fact very avant garde.
Two kinds of people come to Seaside. There are those looking for a lazy family getaway. And then there are those on a pilgrimage to the place where New Urbanism – a style of town planning that emphasizes walkability on a small scale – began.
I'm here for the latter, so I join Schnell, as he waits outside Sundog Books. It's one of about 50 shops and restaurants. The town also includes six silvery Airstreams retrofitted to take advantage of the hot gourmet food truck trend. Patrons of these can sit on or near the town's central plaza.
This setup is key to the ethos of Seaside, says Schnell. The uses that surround and spring from its center are public. In addition to the commercial spaces, there's a post office, an amphitheater, a non-denominational church and a school nearby. The town's three main streets radiate from this hub. These amenities are all within a five-minute walk of the 500 or so houses and condos that fill the 80-acre town.
We start our tour by strolling along the broadest of those streets, Seaside Avenue. The town's grandest homes are found here, with colonnades and verandahs facing verdant medians planted with native trees and shrubs. Schnell stops at a tri-cornered intersection to point out a gazebo in one direction, a beach pavilion at the other end – Seaside is famous for these fanciful contraptions, which lead down to the white sand beach 20 feet below – and in the distance, the church's bell tower.
"These offer what is known as 'terminated vistas,'" he says. "They're beautiful – but also practical. They provide orientation for the visitor and frame elements of what's important in the community."
We walk a bit farther, past wood-sided Victorian and Colonial homes painted in ice cream hues of strawberry, pistachio and banana. Then we stop. This large home has the signature traits of the others – the "widow's walk" tower, the southern dog-trot breezeways, the tin roofs, the white picket fence – but it's clad in steel, a thoroughly modern interpretation.
Seaside is about harmony, Schnell emphasizes, not homogeneity.
We continue walking and Schnell points out a bright orange house, designed by Leon Krier, the architect upon whose theories Seaside and New Urbanism were founded. One of Seaside's most distinctive and favored touches – sandy alleys that pass behind backyards and offer short cuts into town – are called Krier paths, says Schnell.
Davis first heard of Krier shortly after inheriting the northwest Florida property, when he encountered the husband-and-wife architectural duo of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Davis and his wife, Daryl, hit it off with the other couple and all four began discussing turning Krier's ideas into reality. They embarked on a two-year road trip, studying America's coastal towns, from Charleston to Cape May, N.J., and armed with cameras, drawing pads and measuring tapes.
The lessons they learned – everything from the importance of porches in fostering community to the ideal street widths that encourage pedestrians – are the very stuff of Seaside.
Davis himself designed the first two houses, which still sit side by side. In one, Robert and Daryl set up home; in the other, they set up a business. They got ready to market the new town they had dreamed up, Seaside.
Across the street from these two small buildings on Tupelo Street, my husband and I spent four nights in the charming 500-square foot, two-story Spice Cottage (each house for rent bears a plaque with its moniker as well as the names and hometowns of the family who own it). A model of efficiency, the place features a spacious closet tucked under the stairway, pegs for hanging our jackets and a compact kitchen missing not a thing. The cottage also offered high ceilings and plentiful windows.
The economies of a remote location (no jobs) mixed with a fabulous beach (lots of recreation) may have quickly diverted Seaside. It morphed into a resort town, instead of a workaday one. But upon observing the 30th anniversary, Davis emphasized that it had nonetheless been a success.
"If visitors come and take away some of the ideas of Seaside with them and apply them to their own hometowns," Schnell tells me as we part, "I think he's very happy."
JoAnn Greco writes frequently on the intersection of architecture, urban planning and travel for publications such as The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler and her own online magazine, TheCityTraveler.com.