Seaside isn’t perfect.
The town painted in pastels and known for being happy and idyllic is so far from perfect that practically all Robert Davis notices are imperfections — it’s kind of his job, he said.
The founder of Seaside, though, doesn’t say it like it’s a bad thing. What he means is that the beach town he developed along Scenic Highway 30A some 40 years ago is never finished. It’s constantly evolving, and he says it like a person who knows just how overrated perfect is.
“Compared to Alys Beach, or Disney World, or Disneyland, or Celebration, it's way clunkier, way more imperfect,” Robert said. “Sometimes that's something that gives me great satisfaction. A lot of times it's like, ‘Sure wish we could get passing through Seaside to look as beautifully manicured as where it passes through Alys Beach.’ It's not perfect by any stretch, and it's always in a state of becoming, which also means its imperfections are probably more noticeable … every good town is constantly evolving. It's kind of reassuring that it has lots of things yet to build to improve the place.”
This article comes as the end of Seaside’s 40th anniversary year approaches, and it’s perfectly imperfect to Robert.
“It’s on Seaside time,” he said.
New Urbanism and the creation of Seaside
Iconic is a good word for it, said Dhiru Thadani.
The architect and urbanist behind “Visions of Seaside: Unbuilt Projects” (an assemblage of unrealized projects by several architects) is referring, of course, to the Seaside effect.
Seaside was integral to New Urbanism, a design movement to make places more walkable, and the Davises are still major advocates of it. The nonprofit, Congress for New Urbanism, started in 1993 with a group of like-minded architects who wanted to make walkable towns, Thadani said.
Seaside didn’t invent the principles of New Urbanism; it just reminded people they exist.
“Prior to that, nobody was really talking about it,” Thadani said. “There was a city and there was a suburb, and the missing ground is the town. That's the kind of the middle realm between the suburb and urban.”
Seaside was born when Robert inherited the 80-acre stretch of paradise along the Gulf of Mexico in the 1970s from his grandfather and Birmingham department store owner, Joseph Smolian.
Robert grew up in an era in which kids walked or biked to school. When his family went to the beach, they stayed in small villages and walked the beach.
“The memories of growing up that way, in places that were compact, walkable and kid friendly, stayed with me,” Robert said. “That's, of course, what I thought about when I was planning and developing this stretch of beach I was inheriting. Because it was all wrapped up with these memories of my family — my grandfather in particular — who bought the land to make a summer camp for his employees. I’d like to think we’ve gone part of the way toward creating a camp for extended families from all over to enjoy life at the beach.”
Robert and his wife and Seaside co-founder, Daryl, began the creation of Seaside in 1978, with a six-month sabbatical to Italy and France.
“We did a lot of traveling through both countries, visiting cities, small towns, beach vacation places on the coast, and we started getting a sense about what a community could actually look like, feel like,” Daryl said. “What were the ones that felt good, and why did they feel good? What was special about them?”
They did the same in the U.S., visiting New Orleans, Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina.
“We felt that it was important to start right away having gathering places for people, even though there was nothing much to gather for,” Daryl said.
Seaside was planned by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk in consultation with Leon Krier. Its architecture piqued Thadani’s interest when Duany gave a lecture in the 1980s at the Catholic University of America in Washington, where he was teaching.
He became directly involved between 2011 and 2018 with Davis, generating different ideas to improve the public realm of Seaside, such as moving the post office.
“It's a place that uplifts the human spirit,” Thadani said. “You associate that small town with a value system — there might not always be the value system — but there's some kind of friendliness because of the scale of the place. I have to say that my time there, I really grew a whole new family of friends who were there.”
The picket fence is a cliché for a reason. Every fence in Seaside is different; it’s written in the code, Thadani said.
“There was a lot of inventiveness, playfulness that occurred between the different fences,” Thadani said. “(Robert Davis) likes to say that Seaside was designed at the scale of children and a dog, so if you're a small, how do you perceive seaside?”
Thadani saw that play out himself when he visited with his children. They remembered where they were staying by the design of the fence.
Small towns still have an element of cities Thadani calls “a moment of urbanism.”
“What that's about is this serendipitous interaction with other people,” Thadani said. “You run into people you don't know, or people you do know, you discuss something, they tell you where to get a cup of coffee. So that interaction is an urban experience. And in a small town, you get that same urban experience, but dialed down.”
'The Truman Show', Southern Living put Seaside on the map
They had no idea whether Seaside would succeed, Robert said.
They hedged their bets in a number of ways, such as setting aside land they could sell without the code, restrictions and homeowners association assessments. At one point, they even proposed Walton County move 30A to make Seaside a gated community – a norm in the late 1970s. Robert is thrilled now it didn’t happen.
“I think the idea of Seaside being open and inclusive is really important and part of its success and its meaning,” Robert said.
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One of his favorite memories is walking with Daryl and their two dachshunds up Tupelo Street, at the time still a sand pass, to the gazebo at the top of the hill for double wedding ceremony.
It succeeded more quickly than they thought it would, but it wasn’t without downturns. Hurricane Opal in 1995 comes to mind.
“The rest of the world thought the Florida Panhandle had been wiped off the map even though Seaside was intact,” Robert said. “There were a lot of national news programs about Seaside surviving that direct hit that disappeared a bunch of developments not very far away. But it was a moment of fingernail chewing to figure out how we're going to get out. Luck actually saved us.”
The following spring, they received a visit from the folks at Paramount to negotiate location fees and arrangements to film the 1998 movie “The Truman Show” in Seaside. The film took over the town, with some locals acting in the movie, and others engaging with the cast and crew.
Being the backdrop of an award-winning movie and being featured in national press — namely Southern Living Magazine — put Seaside on the map, he said.
“Louis Joyner, who wrote and photographed the first article in Southern Living that ended up being a cover story, (was an) amazingly smart and creative guy, made it look like there was a lot more there than there was,” Robert said. “He was obviously very sympathetic to the idea, so he wanted to be helpful in making sure people understood what we were trying to do. Only modest amounts of our ambitions had been physically realized.”
The reality doesn’t fall far from the renderings. Seaside looks much how they imagined it, with its architecture influencing others.
“You don’t have to go very far down the road to see Rosemary Beach, and then Alys Beach and Watercolor, all of which were planned according to principles that we rediscovered in Seaside,” Robert said. “We didn't invent these things. We simply reverse engineered the American small town as it existed.”
Where vacationers make memories
Robert and Daryl have conversations like this all the time: how they created Seaside, what it means to them.
The answer to the latter becomes obvious within moments of talking to them. It's their life’s work.
“This is a place for friends and families to spend time together in a very relaxed setting,” Robert said. “Where adults have let their hair down and are more childlike themselves. And children, I think, have some of their fondest memories developed during these extended long slow days at the beach.”
Like him, Daryl — a self-proclaimed perfectionist — sees Seaside for all of its flaws – a repair needed here, a paint job there. She started Seaside in her late 20s and is now in her early 70s, so they grew up together, she said.
She seems to like how they turned out.
“I didn't expect the number of cars that would come through,” Daryl said. “I didn't expect how meaningful it would be to people and how it would resonate with them that they want to come back here year after year and they make family memories here and get married here and have all those memories along the way, they're having it in Seaside. I'm having it while I'm creating Seaside and they're having it while they’re in Seaside so we're having parallel experiences.”
Starting her first business, an outdoor marketplace once called Perspicacity (now called Cabana by The Seaside Style) and seeing it become successful is Daryl’s proudest work. She and her partner, Erica Gibson Pierce, launched it with their own money.
“I realized that it was so much fun to create something from absolute scratch and work through all the details and have it be a success,” Daryl said. “I have those feelings now about Seaside as a whole, (but) at the time — and this was 1983 — only bits and parts of Seaside were getting finished, so you didn't have that sense of accomplishment all the way in every time. It took much longer to achieve various levels of accomplishment. This was my first one I did by myself, and I was very proud of myself. It just made me want to get up in the morning and go to work.”
The hype about Seaside came in phases, Thadani said — first to make financially profitable communities, then walkable communities, healthier communities and more environmentally sustainable communities.
“In an older time, we didn't have the abundance of resources, so people were much more careful about how they spent their money,” Thadani said. “Seaside was building community with being frugal along the way. It’s really not necessarily for 50 houses to have 50 swimming pools. That's a very unsustainable model.”
Many developers came to the training sessions at the Seaside Institute to learn how to make places like Seaside, Thadani said.
But no one will make it the same exactly.
“It was very personal; all the things that happened in Seaside initially had to do with Robert’s taste,” Thadani said. “He liked good Italian coffee and so you got Studio 10, and that was before Amavida came. And Modica Market carried all kinds of olive oils and things Robert liked, so it was very much modeled after a personality after one person who, in fact, was the town founder.”
'Small town grocers' launch Modica Market
Modica Market is just one of the artisanal ingredients in the recipe that made Seaside.
While the grocery store sitting in Central Square offers staple food items for residents and visitors; it has eclectic products inside people won’t spot at Publix. Charles Modica Jr. knows why.
“What they wanted to do was to raise the bar, and bring in more of a European flair for those people that were coming that were well traveled,” Modica said. “They had they had this vision of a European market, so to speak. So that's where a lot of this kind of evolved from.”
Modica Jr. is part of Seaside’s second generation, inheriting the store from his parents, Charles and Sarah Modica Senior, who were grocers in Bessemer, Alabama. Through a chance meeting of the Davis family, a gentleman’s handshake and a cookout or a fish fry, his parents anchored the anchor store of Seaside.
“Small town grocers have responsibilities, like people will come there and say, ‘Hey, I need a doctor. I need some help. Can you direct me?’” Modica said. “I honestly feel in my heart that Robert and Daryl realized that they knew my parents were that type. They knew there’s a role to play. And I think they recognized that they had that sense of community about them.”
Modica stumbled into his own Seaside opportunity, opening a sandwich and ice cream shop called Sip ‘n Dip on a whim. He ran it for 10 years, and it was his best decision.
“Robert wanted us to be successful,” Modica said. “We wanted Seaside to be successful. I think everybody had each other's best interests at heart, and I think that's where the success came from.”
“I will say this, too, Robert and Daryl did a really good job. They handpicked the people that they brought in. They really took they went painstaking choices to make sure that they were putting the right pieces of the puzzle together to help the community grow. It’s really important to know that. This was not just, 'Let’s fill in spots and hope this works out.' No, they were very meticulous about how they put this together.”
Modica and Micah Davis, Robert and Daryl's son, are on the same path, he said, carrying the family tradition of sustaining Seaside.
“And just like me, why would you put somebody else in a place when I know how it runs? Micah knows how the ship sails. I think he’s the perfect fit,” Modica said. “I love the fact that we're growing. I love the fact that Robert and Daryl have brought in new energy through Micah.”
Modica believes the market will grow later, but never mind that. With his wife Julie, son Hayden and daughter Zoë, he is living his actual best life, he said.
“I would never have dreamed in a million years that I would be living the life I'm living, around the people that I want to be around,” Modica said. “And I've met so many wonderful customers and guests and homeowners, and it's been an honor really to have had the opportunity to be here. And I need to thank Robert and Daryl for their trust in our family to carry on the tradition.”
Davises pass Seaside torch to son Micah
When Daryl tells people today that Seaside started as nothing, they often respond in disbelief.
“I don't know if people can imagine nothing being here because, and this is a very big compliment, it looks like it should be there,” Daryl said. “It works on so many levels. And when you have something that resonates on so many levels, it makes a deep impression within you. I think the intimacy that Seaside creates, people feel when they get here. After a half a day, they feel like they know where everything is, and they feel comfortable in town, and it's all of a sudden their town. I think that makes it very desirable as a place to be and spend time.”
While Seaside might exist along a highway of other beach towns; it won’t seem like the others. That’s because it was hand created.
“It's like if you go to the store and you buy an apple pie, it's going to feel and taste different than an apple pie that your grandmother made,” Daryl Davis said. “Seaside is handcrafted; it’s artisanal. To say it's extremely gratifying is such an understatement. I wouldn't even know how to describe it. It fills me with joy. It makes everything that I tried to do, I had to accomplish, every fight I had, every knockdown drag out decision that we had to make, everything, it makes it all worthwhile.”
Thadani has helped the Davises make various adjustments to Seaside. He thinks much of Seaside’s success is because of Davis’ willingness to improve things.
“It’s kind of a perfect situation where we can build upon what others have done, respecting what others did before, but adding to it in a positive way,” Thadani said. “You work in a way that no one knows that you were there. It's pretty natural, because you use the same material, the same elements, the same design strategies, and build upon. I think that's really important. Unlike what's happened in many cities today, where all the buildings are screaming for attention, are they doing silly things with the building to grab the attention; Seaside’s a place that really believes in keeping the original idea and updating it within the parameters, within the context.”
The future of the community lies in the hands of their son Micah, Daryl said.
Micah sees himself as essentially an owner and developer, he said, determining what to make of undeveloped lots and improving buildings, as well as being an ambassador of Seaside in a cultural sense.
The 34-year-old spent his childhood in the town and with the town, in many ways shaped by it in his core beliefs, he said. His kid memories are of going to the beach, going to the playgrounds and having free reign of the town — all happy memories.
“I got to have a somewhat unique childhood insofar as I had a lot of freedom to leave the house and explore on my own, which is not something that I think a lot of kids these days get to enjoy,” Micah said. “Once I moved to San Francisco in middle school, suddenly I had a lot less freedom and I had to spend a lot more time just being driven or taken from one activity to another, which just wasn't quite as empowering or as fun as having free reign for myself.”
From what Micah calls a selfish point of view, he wants to make the Seaside area as nice of a place to live in as possible, he said. It’s his home.
“There's still things that I miss about the city,” Micah said. “If you're a young person, you basically have the choice of either living in a place that has all the things you want, or trying to bring some of those things to a place to the place that you live in. And so I've chosen the second thing. And I'm hoping that by putting my efforts towards that, I can convince more young, ambitious people to come here and put their energies toward making this place a really great place to live.”
Micah recently finished a project called The Court, which took one of the oldest collection of buildings in Seaside, from semi-dilapidated into a boutique hotel with a Black Bear Bread Co. café in the front.
“Where we're at these days is trying to preserve the charm that makes Seaside an enticing place to visit, by not building the most gargantuan buildings we can, which seems to be kind of a trend on 30A these days, but instead trying to highlight the quaint, cozy cottage style buildings that were originally here,” Micah said.
The architecture of Seaside is indicative of its purpose, Micah explained, to simplify your life.
The principles of New Urbanism, too, are largely intertwined with Seaside’s simple appeal. That is what inspired Seaside’s construction and explains to people why they enjoy visiting Seaside or other urban places such as San Francisco or New York City.
“I still think that the movement is extremely important to our future, going forward in this country and on this planet, I think we need to spend a lot more time walking than driving,” Micah said.
Micah has many goals, but namely to continue what he and his father both describe as unfinished.
“Back in the day, cathedrals, for instance, would take many generations to complete, and the people who started them would not be the same people who finished them,” Micah said. “And I think the same is true of a town. My parents started it. I'll do my part to keep working on it. I may not finish it. I don't know whether my progeny will either or someone else.”
Robert, too, has many projects he would like to propose and put in the pipeline, such as the Krier Tower, a proposed landmark. But, he recognizes Seaside — his life’s work – will never be finished.
“I kind of like it's inevitably partially finished state,” Robert said. “And for a long time, I was a lot more of a young man in a hurry to get it all done.”
Source : https://www.nwfdailynews.com/story/news/local/2021/12/30/seaside-florida-celebrates-40th-anniversary-robert-davis-and-family-reflect/6274477001/6178