Seaside, about the community and
the building of the Seaside Research Portal

By Jennifer Parker

About Seaside

Seaside, FL
Seaside, FL

Seaside is a small coastal community located on the Florida Panhandle, in between Panama City to the east and Fort Walton Beach to the west, in the city of Santa Rosa Beach and the county of Ft. Walton. The area is quite diverse geographically comprised of beautiful beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, the Choctawhatchee Bay a bit inland, forested state parks, and multiple streams, ponds, and small lakes. Much of the land surrounding the county was owned by the St. Joe Paper Company.

Seaside is heralded as the first “New Urban” community. Founded in 1979 (construction began in 1981) by Robert Davis and planned by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk in consultation with Leon Krier, Seaside is an 80 acre community with a population of approximately 1228, including cats and dogs. New Urbanism is an argument against suburban sprawl and the re-awakening of the American city. Its principles state that a walkable, connected, mixed use community will yield a better quality of life. Seaside is the first of many successful New Urbanist communities in the US and abroad.

Robert Davis inherited the land that Seaside sits on from his grandfather J. Smolian.1 His intention with the land was to build a utopian city that would draw Americans tired of suburban living back to small city life. Seaside was created as a resort community. The vast majority of properties are individually owned but are part of large rental programs. As of December 2012 there were only 17 permanent residents but the Seaside homeowners are very involved with the community’s management.

Seaside and its founder are the recipients of many notable awards in architecture and planning including the following:

  • 1983 – Award of Excellence from the South Florida Chapter of the AIA
  • 1984 – Award of Excellence from the Florida AIA
  • 1984 – Citation of Merit from Progressive Architecture
  • 1986 – Florida Governor’s Design Award
  • 1986 – Builder Magazine’s Grand Award
  • 1988 – AIA National Citation Award for Excellence in Urban Design
  • 1988 – Southwest Builder’s Conference Grand Award
  • 1988 – Florida AIA Citation for Excellence in Urban Design
  • 1989 – Southern Living Home Award
  • 1989 – Progressive Architecture Award
  • 1990 – “Designs of a Decade” from Time Magazine
  • 1990 – Four awards at the National AIA Honors Convention
  • 2003 – Urban Land Institute Award for Excellence

Seaside and Notre Dame

The University of Notre Dame established a relationship with the community of Seaside in 2010 through its founder Robert Davis and his long association with ND’s School of Architecture. Mr. Davis serves as a juror for the Richard H. Driehaus Prize at the University of Notre Dame, a yearly prize awarded to an architect practicing in the classical tradition. This relationship led Mr. Davis to seek assistance from the School and the Hesburgh Libraries of Notre Dame’s Architecture Library for the storage and organization of the Seaside archives.

The Seaside Archives

The Seaside Archives presented many unique opportunities and challenges for Notre Dame. It opened up the occasion for collaboration between the School of Architecture and the Hesburgh Libraries. While they had a long history of working together, they had not been presented with an opportunity for a formal arrangement.

The archives themselves were problematic. They were made up of several different types of materials and content relating to the history and building of Seaside. The materials associated with the history of Seaside, including letters, images, brochures, videos, etc., were the intellectual property of Seaside. However, the vast majority of the archives were plans and building content for the 372 structures in Seaside. While these items were owned physically by Seaside the copyright was held by the architect or designer of the building. This presented challenges as to what was permissible with the content.

Another unique challenge with the Seaside archives was that they were housed in four different locations. With one exception, these locations were random and the materials had been reorganized and relocated many times. This altered the original plan of providing organization and access to materials in a traditional archival method.

Building the Seaside Research Portal

The Seaside Research Portal was developed for two primary reasons. The first was that Notre Dame needed a way to provide access to the archival and architectural materials prior to the having a physical space to store and present them. The second was that Notre Dame wanted to explore new options for presenting the built environment online. With Seaside there was a unique opportunity to develop a tool that would allow one to study the architecture and urbanism of Seaside from the urban scale down to the individual building level. Seaside is a small enough community that this could be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time.

The first challenge, to trace the urban development of Seaside, turned out to be quite simple. The Seaside Archives contained some early plans and held references to many others. These plans had one thing in common — the firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company. Principals Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk graciously shared their archival materials relating the plan of Seaside. In addition, Andres Duany provided descriptions and commentary for each phase of the community’s development.

While researching and collecting information at the DPZ main office in Miami, Florida it was noted that each plan of Seaside, from the first Arquitectonica plan in 1979 to the final plans in the mid-1980s, was done on transparent paper. When stacked atop one another it was possible to see how the plan developed. In order to replicate this virtually the ‘Explore the Plan’ section of the Portal was created. To achieve this the Portal’s front-end developer, Dan Brubaker Horst, used JavaScript to create an interactive visualization that varies the opacity of these plans. In this way it facilitates the juxtaposition of different phases in Seaside’s planning and development.

To further explore the urban plan of Seaside the interactive map was developed. It combines information from the Google Maps API and the catalog of the Seaside Research Portal. The map allows the user to place the building they are researching in its geographic location. In addition, one can search the interactive map by architect or keyword. The results provided include geographic markers and links to building names and building records.

Developing the Content

The Seaside Research Portal’s Content Development team works closely with architects, photographers, and Seaside homeowners to gather, digitize, describe, and display the content in the Portal.


  1. For more information on J. Smolian see Visions of Seaside