Creating Seaside

Robert and Daryl Davis. Photo by Scott Holstein.
Sculpting SeasideA Boy from Birmingham and a Girl from Brooklyn Merge Their Varied Pasts to Realize the New Urbanism Movement and Sell the World on ‘Dreamland Heights’

By Linda Kleindienst

They transformed a scrubby beachfront into a new symbol of community, gave new life to the almost forgotten “cracker house” and popularized the idea of building homes in harmony with their environment.

Meet Robert and Daryl Davis, the boy from Birmingham, Ala., and the girl from Brooklyn who have been hailed worldwide as “true architectural connoisseurs.”

Together, they turned a grandfather’s vision into reality, transforming what some considered scrub wasteland and worthless sand into an architectural mecca. And they introduced the world to Scenic Highway 30-A and its world-class beaches.

Together, the Davises gave birth to Seaside and a movement called “New Urbanism,” the concept of living in a community where most of life’s daily needs are a short walk away and where children can bike to school, the bookstore and the ice cream shop. It was a return to a “Leave It to Beaver” style of life, the antithesis of the construction mania gripping the rest of Florida — sprawling suburbs and high-rise condominiums that cut off the view and access to one of the Sunshine State’s greatest treasures, its beaches.

Today, along Seaside’s quiet streets, behind white picket fences, stand quaint wood-frame cottages with expansive porches and names such as “Nana’s Sunshine,” “Bonny Dune” and “Smitten,” all painted in warm hues of yellow, blue, pink and green. All streets lead to the sea, with pavilions serving as a public gateway to the azure waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s a place where you can experience serenity, safety and beauty,” says Annette Newbill Trujillo, who runs a quaint local gallery that sells one-of-a-kind jewelry, wind ornaments and sculptures. “It’s a very special place.”

Of the couple that made it a reality, longtime friend and employee Erica Pierce says, “Once you meet the Davises, you get caught up in their dream.”

In 2011, they’ll all celebrate the realization of that dream as Seaside turns 30.

An Unlikely Match
Robert and Daryl Davis come from different worlds, but their lifetime experiences are what provided the spark to make Seaside a reality. He’s from the South, she’s from the North. He is precise, rejecting the “mindless experimentalism of modernism” for the tried and tested. She adheres to an opposite philosophy of “invent it yourself.”

He is quiet and somewhat reserved, although his hobby and passion is driving his two race cars. She is creative and vivacious, teasing him into poses for the camera, often finishing his half-completed thoughts, lovingly giving him hugs and kisses.

Robert Davis grew up in a Jewish family in the Edgewood section of Birmingham, where bagels looked more like doughnuts and (to Daryl Davis’ continued amusement today) he topped them with jelly because “it made sense.”

“As Birmingham goes, Edgewood was rather urbane,” he says. “But as Lenny Bruce would say in his comedy skits, if you’re from New York, you’re Jewish. If you’re not, you’re not.”

Robert Davis vacationed on Northwest Florida’s Gulf shores with his family, enjoyed the subtropical climate, majored in history at Antioch College in Ohio and then earned a graduate business degree from Harvard. He had all the tools to become the CEO of a large, multinational corporation. Instead, he became an architect of renown in Miami.

Daryl Rose Davis was born in Brooklyn, where she developed a sense of community from the front stoops of her neighborhood. She loved going to Coney Island and was highly artistic and creative. She worked at a methadone clinic while earning a master’s degree in counseling from the University of Miami and wondering what her future might hold.

They met on a “second generation” blind date.

“Daryl’s former boyfriend had been a blind date,” says Robert Davis. “He suggested I give her a call. If it had been a friend of my mom’s, I wouldn’t have bothered. But he seemed like a pretty cool guy, so I figured his old girlfriend couldn’t be that bad.”

It was pretty close to love at first sight, though she was angry he showed up late.

“He picked me up 45 minutes late in a car that had no floorboards on the passenger side,” Daryl Davis remembers. “How impressed was I? Then he said to me, on our first date, ‘I’m going to take you to my house and cook dinner for you.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Who’s going to be dessert?’”

That first date was in February 1977. It turned out that he was a pretty good cook. They were married in 1983 at Seaside’s Tupelo pavilion.

“He inherited Seaside, I inherited a Southerner,” she jokes.

The Beginnings
It all started with Joseph Smolian, a Birmingham department store owner who loved to bring his family to Florida’s Gulf beaches for vacation. He was Robert Davis’ grandfather.

In 1946, Smolian bought 80 acres — at $100 an acre — to build a summer camp for his employees. But that plan never worked out, and family members chided him for buying worthless sand from country boys who saw him coming. He put the deed away but, as Robert Davis remembers, vowed, “One of these days, it’ll be worth something.”

The family continued returning for their beach vacations, and each time Smolian would hike through the underbrush to see what was there.

“My grandfather would gesticulate and say, ‘This is going to be a great place one day,’” Robert Davis recalls. Smolian even came up with a subdivision name, Dreamland Heights.

Smolian was a builder. He would dig holes in his yard and then fill them up. He constantly put new additions on his house. He built stone walls. At the age of 95, he rebuilt a stone wall in his Florida house. A week after finishing, he died of a heart attack.

But Smolian passed the desire to build on to his grandson, who remembers creating his own castles out of the fine, sugar-white sand of Northwest Florida at the age of 3.

In the late 1970s, Robert Davis inherited the 80 acres of beachfront land “along with a lot of childhood memories of staying in very simple, primitive beach shacks not too far away.” It didn’t take long for the building gene to kick into high gear.

It Wasn’t Easy
Armed with their youthful enthusiasm and a red 1975 Pontiac convertible, Robert and Daryl Davis cruised the back roads of Florida to get architectural inspiration from old towns and buildings. They took lots of notes and photographs as they began planning what Seaside would become. They even traveled to southern Europe — coastal France and Italy — to study the compact towns there.

“All of a sudden, we’d be going down a lovely little street, like a ‘Leave It to Beaver’ street, and he’d jump out of the car while I’d be sitting there thinking, ‘What is going on?’ ” Daryl Davis remembers.

“He’s looking at the curb, taking measurements, looking at the trees, studying everything in detail,” she says. “There is a certain proportion that makes an urban center feel good, comforting. But I didn’t know what he was looking at.”

Pausing, Daryl Davis looks at her husband and then says, “You oversimplify, but it was all those details that you captured that made Seaside what it is.”

Taking the next step took a huge leap of faith for the young couple, who were now faced with building a town and selling their dream to others.

“We weren’t really selling houses. We were selling an idea for living in a neighborhood,” says Robert Davis.

They started out in 1981 with two houses on Tupelo Street. One was the sales office and the other served as both their residence and the Sunday model home. On Saturdays they held an open-air market, fashioned after those they had seen in southern Europe’s town squares, hoping to duplicate the sense of community found in those gathering places.

“It was excessive-compulsive,” Robert Davis now says of the fruits and vegetables they bought to make their market appear attractive to passersby.

“Most of it went home with us because we didn’t have much of a market,” Robert Davis says. “On Sundays we’d be making strawberry jam or spaghetti sauce with the leftover produce. So the house always smelled pretty good. But we did discover that smell is a proven technique for selling.”

The houses were sufficiently different from anything else being developed along Florida’s coast that the Davises thought people would be enthralled by them. Every house was required to have a porch, be built off the ground and have deep roof overhangs with southern exposure to capture the breezes. They were basically passive solar houses — a good idea that was probably 20 years away from becoming a saleable one.

People did drive out to look at the homes, located in what Daryl Davis describes as “the middle of Podunk.” But it was hard to seal those first deals.

“Robert would walk them up the street and he would explain to them the vision of the town that was in his mind and how it would one day look with the school, the downtown, the church,” Daryl Davis recalls. “But then it came time to get the check. We couldn’t figure out how to get the money. There was no sense of urgency. These people thought, ‘Hey, you’ve got 80 acres here, what’s my hurry?’ We just didn’t know how to close the deal.”

As those potential customers left, Robert Davis remembers thinking, “It’ll be a long time before these dreams come true.”

When they finally hired a salesman, he sold six lots in the first week. Enthusiasm began to build, and Seaside took off.

Andres Duany, the Seaside planner and founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, credits the Davises’ vision with being the driving force that turned the town into reality and helped to intercept, if only temporarily, the profusion of high-rise coastal condominiums. The Miami architect also credits the couple with helping to raise the standard of housing and workmanship throughout much of Northwest Florida.

“Robert and Daryl Davis’ fanaticism gradually raised the standard of craftsmanship, proving bit by bit, over the years, that people will pay for quality design and construction,” Duany writes in “Views of Seaside: Commentaries and Observations on a City of Ideas,” published by the Seaside Institute in 2008.

“The crews that started Seaside’s first buildings could hardly hammer a nail or hang Sheetrock,” Duany writes. “Twenty years later the construction crews not only at Seaside but also throughout the Panhandle have become masters unsurpassed anywhere in the United States.”

Town Center
The heart of a town is where its community gathers. For Seaside, that is the town center, a place filled with unique small stores and the town green — a wide expanse of lawn that hosts concerts, movies and children at play.

This is where Daryl Davis has poured out her heart, using her creativity and retail skills to establish a variety of stores that sell clothing and home items.

“Robert does the structure of the town and I feel like I’m the infill person, like I’m the visual arm for what the Seaside style is,” she says.

In a place called Perspicacity, a word that Webster’s Dictionary defines as “acute mental vision,” Daryl Davis has strived to keep alive the concept of the Saturday outdoor market.

“When it was still hard to get people to buy homes here, she felt it was important to develop retail, to create a sense of community, a buzz. And it worked,” said Erica Pierce, who has worked for the Davises since 1988 and manages five stores owned by Daryl. “It started to develop a real town feeling.”

All of the businesses in Seaside remain mom-and-pop operations — there are no chain stores. That makes Seaside an anomaly in the area.

As Daryl Davis worked to develop the commercial heart of the town and the Seaside “style,” she also focused on trying to convince people to come out and visit.

“We tried to create a social milieu to make it fun,” she says. “We held watermelon-pit spitting contests. We had a pig roast — with two guys drinking bourbon in the town center for 24 hours while the pigs were roasting. Robert even dressed up in drag, as Miss Seaside.”

Eventually the tourists came, as did universities, writers and museum curators interested in the concept of New Urbanism. Live music, including a New York City Opera touring company and the Birmingham Symphony, and foreign films were brought in. The Seaside Institute was started in 1982. And the town’s starring role in the hit movie “The Truman Show” brought more national attention.

The Irony
While Seaside is a town that was built to be lived in, few people actually do live there. It remains primarily a resort where those who do own homes rent them out for much of the year. There are fewer than a dozen permanent residents.

Laura and Michael Granberry are artists who moved from Atlanta to become permanent Seaside residents in 2005. They only have one car. And there are days when the car sits unused by either of them.
“I love the community aspect,” Laura Granberry says. “You have a town and you don’t need a car. After coming from Atlanta, where you can’t get anywhere walking, we fell in love with everything.”

Adds Michael Granberry, “I love the fact that I can walk out the door, be at the market and they know my name. But in the middle of summer (with the tourists), it can be a circus outside.”

The Granberrys were attracted by the idea of an artist’s colony where shops would be on the ground floor and the artists would live above. It’s a concept common in Europe but not in the United States.

But the artist colony on Ruskin Place has not caught on quite as many had hoped. And the Granberrys are among the few homeowners who are not retired or self-made millionaires. There has also been friction in the homeowner’s group between the permanent residents and those who own homes but show up only intermittently on vacation.

“At one point about two years ago I got very frustrated with Seaside,” Laura Granberry admits. “It’s a town, but not a functioning town. Maybe as more people retire it will be.”

Yet as Duany points out in “Views of Seaside,” the fact that Seaside is mostly a resort town is what helped spread the new-urbanist concept.

“Many people (developers included) have taken the Seaside experience back home and implemented what they have lived and learned,” he writes. “The idealism of a resort can give clarity to a concept. Seaside, with sequential residents, has become a propaganda machine. A full-time community of everyday living cannot be quite as effective.”

Even the Davises don’t live in Seaside. While they come back several times a year and keep constant vigil over their town via phone and e-mail, they now live in San Francisco.

“We decided on a sabbatical,” Daryl Davis explains of the move 10 years ago when their son was 11. “We wanted Micah to have a Bar Mitzvah, and it was difficult in this area. I think there were five Jewish people, and we were three of them.”

They were also burned out by living and working in the same place. Micah even dubbed his father “Sir Talks A Lot” because, even on his days off, people would constantly stop Robert Davis on the street or the beach to talk.

“People didn’t realize that might be the only time we had allocated for family time,” Daryl Davis says.

One year in San Francisco turned into another and another. They liked the idea of having distance from their work. They got out of micromanaging, says Daryl Davis, and came out better managers.

Still Work To Do
Robert is 65 and Daryl is 58, but there is no sign the Davises are slowing down. They want to continue the work of the Seaside Institute, which has nurtured the cultural offerings at Seaside. They want to help in the development of 30-A as a “larger civic entity” and a recognized brand. And they want to continue telling the story of Seaside. Hundreds of new communities across the globe already have incorporated some aspect of New Urbanism, and they hope to see it applied to more.

In the meantime, those who live in Seaside and those who don’t say they will still enjoy what Robert and Daryl Davis have given them.

“It’s a small town that brings you tranquility,” says gallery owner Newbill Trujillo. “People are looking for spaces in our universe that are calm.”