Visions of Seaside

By Robert Smolian Davis
Founder, Seaside Florida

Aerial view of Seaside 1965
Aerial view of Seaside 1965

The ideas for Seaside were germinated and planted in “interesting times”. In 1946, when my grandfather, J. Smolian, “J.S.”, bought 80 acres next to Seagrove Beach, it was to make a summer camp for the employees of Pizitz, the department store he had built with his father-in-law, Louis Pizitz, “Big Papa”. They shared a lifetime of similar experiences including Cossacks riding through their town in Western Russia (Eastern Poland) and of different outlooks though both were sons of Rabbis. J.S. was not an observant Jew, but he was, in his way, like a Rabbi, a man other intelligent people would seek out for his wisdom and his all-too-uncommon “common sense”.

Big Papa was a merchant. He knew his “schmatte” and he knew how to sell. He was tall and handsome, and was a ladies man until the end of his long life. On the third floor of Pizitz in the Ladies Ready-to- Wear department, he would hold court in his throne-like chair from which he could survey the scene. At the edges of an impressive expanse of carpet in front of his throne were racks of women’s clothing, and women looking at the clothing. If one of the women appealed to Big Papa, he would saunter over to help her with her choice. Though he was adventurous as a ladies man, he was very cautious as a businessman, and he and J.S., who was constantly dreaming of a bigger and better business, were often at odds.

J.S. and young Robert
J.S. and young Robert

J.S., a visionary, felt frustrated by Big Papa’s conservatism and resistance to change. As a visionary, like Bobby Kennedy, J.S, ”saw things as they could be and asked ‘why not’?”

The coffee shop was my favorite place in the store. (Since we moved from Birmingham when I was nine, I was too young at the time to appreciate Big Papa’s place of pulchritude as much as I now enjoy Cinderella Circle in Seaside.) I loved the hot fudge sundaes and banana splits. Big Papa loved taking my sister Laurie and me there and watching us gorge ourselves on both. But when the coffee shop first was installed on the mezzanine, Big Papa had a conniption. J.S. had stayed up all night overseeing its sudden and secret installation. He slept late the next morning; by the time he got to work, Big Papa had demolished much of it, lest it “stink up my schmatte” as he bellowed.

But JS had it rebuilt, and once it was there and people liked it, it became Big Poppa’s favorite place and he proudly accepted compliments on what a great idea his coffee shop was. The growth of the store had followed this pattern for decades, but by the late ‘40’s, Big Papa, in his eighties, had given up worrying about the day-to-day, so that he could hold court with his ladies and smoke cigars and play pinochle with his cronies.

Robert and J.S. at the beach 1946
Robert and J.S. at the beach 1946

So in 1946, when J.S. germinated the idea of a summer camp for Pizitz employees (similar to Camp Helen, which Avondale Mills built for its employees) it was Big Papa’s son, Isidore Pizitz, ”Bud”, who scoffed at the idea as being too progressive and too expensive. J.S. was pleased with the purchase of 80 acres and a half-mile of beach, “and 40 acres underwater that might be worth something someday”. It was only a few miles from Camp Helen, and a Pizitz summer camp would be great for building morale. “Team building” had been one of Big Poppa and J.S.’s greatest strengths together, though at that time they would not have used the term. Through the Depression, they had shown their loyalty to customers and employees alike, by extending credit, developing a “layaway” program, and by having big dinners for all their fellow citizens who could not afford a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast.

The generous gesture of sharing the land with his partners and sharing with his employees the experience of going to the beach would have been adopted by Big Papa, after some initial resistance, but Bud wouldn’t budge.1 J.S. put the deed in a safe deposit box, and tried to let go of his original idea.

He didn’t forget his land purchase, however. He had the property cleared with a bulldozer so that each summer we would see its full extent when we would drive out in en famille. J.S. would show us the place that, in his vision, would one day be a great human settlement. Later, he and my grandmother gave a parcel of Seaside to the University of Alabama in Birmingham to build a small conference center and housing for faculty and visiting scholars.2

In the mid 1940’s, people’s memory of the Depression was strong and so was the fear that it could return. Most thought that the artificial prosperity of the war would come to an end. Few could see that the USA would maintain a wartime military-industrial complex indefinitely or build a brave new world which would provide perpetual prosperity to autoworkers and road builders and homebuilders. Recently, however, with oil beginning to run out and the value of houses beginning to correlate inversely with the cost of getting to them, we seem to living in “interesting times” again.

By the late 1970’s, when the planning for Seaside began, it seemed that our oil-dependent economy would require behavioral adjustments if we were to avoid spending the rest of our lives waiting in line for gasoline. Seaside’s groundbreaking in 1981 came right after the demise of John Anderson’s Republican primary bid and, along with it, his idea to raise fuel taxes to move us toward energy independence. Reagan won the presidential race by announcing that it was “morning in America”. The Reagan era and Seaside began in the midst of a national real estate recession. To me, it seemed like a foggy and overcast morning.

At any rate in 1981, an apparently inauspicious year to start an ambitious real estate endeavor, Seaside set out on a path that combined a conservative business plan and a progressive, perhaps even radical, social plan. Seaside would limit leverage, since my previous project in Miami had almost gone under in the mid-seventies downturn that had featured double-digit interest rates. Seaside would thus grow slowly, one street at a time. But Seaside would try to address some of the social and economic issues that, by 1981, coalesced into a crisis of confidence in our culture.

Seaside was designed for compact cars and clotheslines. It was assumed that air conditioning would be expensive and politically incorrect. Porch sitting during the early evening, waiting for the cottage to cool, would become a revered ritual as well as an appropriate adaptation to the climate.

Seaside’s cottages, we thought, would be modest with tiny bedrooms but expansive porches and with outdoor kitchens and outdoor showers to avoid heating the house. But even so, we assumed that these houses, at $50,000 - $150,000, would be beyond the reach of the teachers, artists and artisans who would have places in our town. So the Seaside Urban Code allowed small airstreams and screen porches to satisfy the building requirement. The rest of the property could be built out slowly, as time and resources allowed.

The Code envisioned large houses along some streets, mainly because every small town needed an Elm Street, like Birmingham’s Highland Avenue, built in the early 1900s. By the 1950’s, Big Poppa had moved to the suburbs, and his mansion on Highland Avenue, like most of the rest of the grand houses, had become a boarding house. Boarding houses or bed-and-breakfast inns would make sense in a holiday town and would provide entrepreneurial opportunities for people who wanted, or needed, to work for themselves.

Restraint, accommodating to the constraints of scarce oil and diminished economic expectations, would fit Seaside for a new era. Getting back to the basics could revitalize the idealism we had shared in the 1960’s and the sense of community we had experienced in the 1950’s.

By the end of the 1970’s, our culture’s retreat from the sixties and from the city was well underway; people had fled to the suburbs, to enclaves of people like themselves, so that their children could go to “good” schools and play in “safe” neighborhoods. A generation was growing up without “street smarts”. (“Cul-de-sac smarts” never amounted to much.) Their early years were spent in straitjackets, in the back seat of cars, experiencing the world as a moving picture, through a window about the size of a large TV.

The most radical (and as it turned out the most appealing) idea of Seaside was to liberate these children and to encourage them to explore the world via Seaside’s narrow streets and narrower footpaths. They could find secret gardens along the way, or make forts from construction materials. They could also run a charge at Modica Market and thus runs errands for the family. One little girl was sent on twelve separate trips from her family’s cottage to collect a dozen eggs.

Modica Market was a haven for lost children. I knew I’d find my son, Micah, there when he wandered off. When he was a young teenager, he was one of the dozens of kids whose first work experience was bagging groceries under Charlie and Charles, Jr.’s watchful eyes. Still later, as a St. John’s College student on holiday, he worked at Sundog Books, recommending Great Books to anyone who inquired.

Seaside’s shops and restaurants were gathering places. They were the “third places” of Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place, a book which celebrated the few remaining taverns, barber shops, corner stores and cafes that remained in a sub-urbanizing society and described their disappearance as an American tragedy. The loss of “third” places -open to the public and likely to lead to chance encounters with friends, neighbors and casual acquaintances- was a blow to public life and to civil society. A society segregated by interest, attitude and demographics into narrow slices would forget the most important civilizing role of cities, the practice of getting along with strangers and with people we know who are not like us.

It was Seaside’s goal to liberate people of all ages from imprisonment in cocoons of supposed safety -home, car and work- and to join the rest of the human race as pedestrians. As it has turned out, in today’s America even work has ceased to be a haven of safety, since so much of it has been outsourced to people in other places happy to do more for less, and as building and selling each other houses and financial instruments ceased to be a sustainable foundation for an economy when we realized we could not continue to borrow against those houses to consume our way to prosperity.

Robert, Daryl & Land Crusier
Robert, Daryl & Land Crusier

Cars of course have always been dangerous places to spend time, and as we spent more and more time in them, we were offered distractions like cell phones and text messaging and food meant to be eaten while driving. Because we were so dependent on driving for all our daily needs, we ignored the facts. In one of our many cases of denial bordering on delusion, we accepted as “normal” that 40,000 Americans would die each year in traffic “accidents”, one third of them teenagers, children for whose sake we rationalized our choice to live a “safe” sub-urban life. If this many children were being killed by terrorists or in battle, we would be marching in protest.

Home, however, was a refuge, a store of value for savings and a place to share values with children. But time with them was scarce, with both parents working harder to support a debt-burdened “lifestyle”, and both parents commuting longer, “driving for value”, for the biggest house with payments that could be covered by two incomes.

But on holiday at the beach, long uninterrupted days with families would allow us to know our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and close friends in a different way. At the beach, people are more relaxed, and the distance between adults and children is lessened, as adults become more childlike and playful and children experience independence in new ways.

Storytelling is a favored pastime in Southern culture, and my family was good at it. My grandfather and great grandfather were outgoing and garrulous sons of Rabbis, whose day jobs had been telling stories and drawing lessons from them. My mother and grandmother had both studied drama at Radcliffe. Though they did not become professional actresses, my grandmother had a radio show for years, and my mother ran a children’s theater troupe, The Lakeshore Players. So much of what I know about my family comes from sitting up late at night, on the porch of the beach cottage, listening to the telling and retelling of favorite anecdotes from our family’s adventures. With each retelling, embellishments would be added, and the story would gain in richness if not necessarily in accuracy or verisimilitude.

Because storytelling was core to the experience we hoped Seaside would foster for families on holiday, Daryl and I resisted allowing televisions in rental cottages. It seemed simple enough before “home theaters” to ask the owners of those cottages to lock the TVs in the owners’ closet. Our early sales brochures and advertisements had emphasized the idea of disconnecting from all of the busyness of quotidian existence, including the hyper-connectedness that was beginning to pervade our lives, in order to re-connect with family and friends and with ourselves. “The Luxury of Simplicity,” the title of one of the essays in the first brochure, was imagined as white cotton curtains blowing in open windows and friends and family spending extended evenings sharing time with each other and passing on tales and traditions to children and grandchildren.

Jacky Barker, Seaside’s sales manager, agreed to the request of a few early Seaside cottage owners to rent their places to vacationers and she persuaded us that TVs were so central to the life of American families that no one would rent the cottages without them. She was probably right, and in any case PDAs and portable game consoles would soon take hyper-connectedness to a new level that would make the absence of TVs in rental cottages a futile gesture. But Daryl and I had loved the isolation and peace of our early years of planning and planting Seaside while living in a cottage in Grayton Beach with no phone, TV or air conditioning. We had learned the art of aestivation – spending the summer in a state of torpor and moisture- in Miami, where our Apogee townhouse always had open windows, slowly moving ceiling fans and outdoor showers. I had built Apogee in the mid-seventies; it had two bedrooms, but no interior walls or doors, so it ventilated very well. It also sold very slowly, as a result of its unconventional and modernist design as well as the prevailing rates for home loans of 18%.

Later, when asked what I would do differently if I could start Seaside over, I would often muse about how the absence of TVs might have affected the type of people who came to Seaside. Recently, a friend and fellow developer suggested that I should have followed the example of Oglethorpe who founded Georgia with a ban on slavery, liquor and lawyers. It was too good an idea to last, however. As soon as Oglethorpe returned to England, a group of lawyers came over the border from Carolina, got everyone drunk and persuaded the intoxicated citizens to eliminate the ban on slavery. So, even though I might muse now about how much better Seaside might be without TVs or lawyers, it is hard to imagine such social engineering succeeding.

Seaside’s social engineering would focus mainly on liberating those without drivers license from dependency on those with them, on enticing people into the public realm by making strolling more pleasant and convenient than driving and making numerous places where spending time with neighbors was more pleasant than staying home. Downtown Seaside’s cafes and restaurants were among these places, and they proved popular with residents and visitors alike. The welcome people felt in Modica Market and in Bud and Alley’s restaurant persuaded more than a few people to purchase property in Seaside.

Robert & Daryl on their wedding day with Bud
Robert & Daryl on their wedding day with Bud

But Seaside also had parks, plazas and pavilions, not just the formless “open space” of most recent developments. Daryl and I were married at the Tupelo Street Gazebo, along with Bud and Guiness, our dachshunds. The gazebo later served as a magnet for generations of children whose families would gather around the edges of Tupelo Circle watching tricycle races around the circle and king of the fort games in the gazebo. The amphitheater in Seaside’s Central Square, likewise served as a frisbee field as well as a place to sit for concerts and movies. And the Seaside Post Office may be the most photographed spot in Seaside, and Pat Day, its Postmistress, one of the town’s best known citizens.

The pavilions terminating each of Seaside’s north-south streets are probably Seaside’s most distinctive public places. Functioning as communal stairs to the beach and porches overlooking the sea, they have allowed Seaside to persuade people that living a block or two from the beach is perhaps preferable to living right on the top of the dune. Walking down a street lined with porches, pausing for conversations with neighbors and seeing the sea framed by a beautiful ceremonial gateway celebrates the procession to the sea in a way that a trip in an elevator never can. The view of the sea through the picture window or sliding doors of a condo is too much like an image on a TV to make living in such a place preferable to living in a Seaside cottage, at least for the admittedly small number of people who chose Seaside.

Slowing down in Seaside also meant that sales and construction were slow, at first because it was a hard sell for most prospective purchasers to pay as much for a cottage a block from the beach as for a beachfront condo. But even after sales began to take off, we made the deliberate decision to move slowly, so that our small staff could oversee construction and so that demand for Seaside property would almost always exceed supply. Even when demand seemed to disappear, as it did in the mid-eighties with the collapse of the Texas- Louisiana oil boom or in the early nineties with the destruction of the savings and loan industry, Jacky and Donna could spur sales by announcing a price increase. Prospective purchasers sitting on the fence were often persuaded that they should sign contracts, since waiting to buy would be more expensive.

Going slowly also suited my own rather deliberate pace. As a Southerner, I tend to stroll rather slowly. Daryl would say I dawdle. I also like to let decisions gestate, until I have digested information, considered alternatives and thought about the likely outcomes of the alternatives. And I prefer to keep my options open as long as possible. My pace can be frustrating, even infuriating, for those who work with me, and I might have succumbed to paralysis in the early years, after barely getting out of my last two Miami projects. But Daryl’s Master’s degree was in community counseling and child psychology, which made her eminently qualified to help a child-like adult undertake the often-daunting task of community building. It was Daryl’s advice, in 1981, to stop trying to design the perfect vernacular beach cottage for Northwest Florida and build one or two that seemed pretty good. Just as one “practiced” architecture, one could “practice” development, refining and improving over time.

Going slowly and learning from our mistakes meant that the mistakes would never be so large that Seaside would be in danger of going under. There are other projects near Seaside that were underway 30 years ago; only Seaside still has its original developer. Going slowly did not insure just survival, but also prosperity. Town building, as opposed to conventional sub-urban development, benefits from critical mass, from more people, more houses, more shops and restaurants, more concerts, plays and exhibitions and from more life. As the benefits of critical mass began to be felt, we still owned a lot of property in Seaside, much of it on the beach, since we had reserved sites for two beachfront hotels. A proposal in the late nineties from a would-be hotel developer led us to hire consultants who persuaded us that the beachfront parcels would be difficult places for the operations of a hotel, and that operating income from a hotel would not justify the kind of land prices that Seaside could get from sales of single family lots. So our unrealistic plans had caused us to hold our most valuable property, much of which was sold during the real estate boom of the late nineties and the bubble of the early 2000s.

The Red House, c. 1982
The Red House, c. 1982

Now we are once again living in “interesting times”. Some of Seaside’s homeowners seem nervous about things, and would sell their cottages if they could. I wish they could, and I wish that I could sell additional property in Seaside to someone who would build and manage a boutique hotel on Seaside’s Central Square. Of course, if any Seaside property owners wish to sell at pre-bubble prices, there are buyers who are eager to invest their money in something tangible, except during the all-too-frequent moments of extreme nervousness about the global financial system’s latest crisis. When I look back at our original ideas and our original goals, we have succeeded financially beyond our wildest dreams, and even now downtown Seaside’s shops and restaurants are posting record sales. Seaside is vulnerable to hurricanes, but its original vision of restraint, of moving slowly and minimizing financial risk, positions it well to survive another era of “interesting times”.

The value of Seaside’s real estate was not immune to the bursting of the bubble, but it held up better than the property in other projects built by corporations that sold a lot of lots each year to maximize short-term returns to their investors. (A recent article in the Financial Times attests to Seaside’s good fortune.) Wall Street is a culture that seems to value only the short term. Town building as practiced in Seaside would not be rewarding for a publicly traded company. But even though Seaside’s values have held up reasonably well, considering the heights they reached at the peak of the bubble, nervous homeowners have found many reasons to be nervous. Chief among them is the perception that Seaside has become more popular, more crowded and less “exclusive”. There is a generally prevailing sentiment in our culture that equates prestige and desirability with exclusivity. Seaside has tried, from its inception, to demonstrate that this need not be the case. Certainly the cities and towns we love the most and most want to visit, New York, San Francisco, Rome, Florence and Paris among the cities, and Forte dei Marmi, Santa Margherita and Portofino among the holiday towns, are crowded with people from many strata of society, and it is the crowdedness that makes them the lively, interesting places that we love to visit. All of them have parking problems.

Parking is a sign of success. It is a problem that can and should be managed. Managing it well through pricing can reduce the numbers of drivers wasting gas looking for parking and can reduce the sense that a place is too crowded. San Francisco, for example, has very little traffic, except near the freeways, because most people will use transit or will walk to avoid paying handsomely (some would say extortionately) for parking. The success of Seaside’s shops and restaurants would suggest that the Arts and Entertainment fees do not need to be spent on free concerts to bring 1000 people to town during Spring Break, but should be spent on events that could persuade people to stay in Seaside for several days during the fall or winter when the town is sparsely populated.

Aerial View of Seaside, c. 2010
Aerial View of Seaside, c. 2010 photo credit: Alex McLean

I hope that Seaside will remain open and accessible to all. It is a holiday town, and some critics have suggested that it is not “real” because so few families live in Seaside year round. But because it is a holiday town, many thousands have experienced its small town urbanity and have learned from it. Some have taken the time, through Seaside Institute seminars and symposia, to learn in depth the philosophy and techniques that have formed the place. Others have simply learned how pleasant it is to park the car and join their fellow citizens as pedestrians, instead of competing with them for scarce asphalt during the daily commute. The Seaside Institute is planning to extend its seminars and symposia to include university students in architecture, planning, development, environmental studies and related fields, in order to connect with the next generation and give them an opportunity to learn from Seaside and the other nearby towns that have incorporated into their planning the principles of the New Urbanism (a movement whose birthplace is Seaside.)

I am happy to be solvent in these uncertain times, but I regret in some ways that big houses instead of grand hotels line the beach near Seaside’s Central Square, and I still hold out hope that smaller, boutique hotels, will be in Seaside’s future. Perhaps the big houses will become rooming houses or bed-and-breakfast inns in the future, as Seaside ages and weathers and as its houses are inherited by our generation’s grandchildren. Richard Sexton, in Parallel Utopias, speculated that, as Seaside’s cottages weathered, as roofs rusted and paint peeled, future generations of owners -artists and teachers instead of lawyers and doctors- would welcome the weathering as patina and as evidence of graceful aging.

Cinderella Circle
Cinderella Circle photo credit: Steven Brooke

Aging with Grace will be Seaside’s next social experiment. The town we have nurtured for 20 years is a NORC (a naturally occurring retirement community). With a bit of adjustment and a small staff, Seaside could provide the assistance we will need to age with grace without the necessity to move into an “assisted living facility”. Someone to drive us when we must give up driving ourselves and someone to help us with our medicines and to check on us will be essential. We would also like to have help with exercise and diet to help us feel younger longer and with meditation and spiritual guidance to help us grow wiser, not just older. Most of all, we will have the opportunity of teaching and learning from members of the next generation, in a place where we can all share stories, and be in touch with ourselves and the people we care for.

Bud, Seaside’s Founding Dog, spent most of his life going to work with me, inspecting construction sites and chasing sand crabs. In his last years, his life was similar to Big Papa’s last years. He held court in Fabs, in Ladies Lingerie, cared for by Dana, who had cared for Micah in his childhood, and doted over by hundreds of women and girls. He died at home, in my arms, at age twenty, 140 dog years.

I hope to spend my last years with Daryl, and I hope to live into my late eighties or nineties, as did JS and Big Papa. If I am privileged to follow in their footsteps, I know that spending time in Seaside, sharing stories with my cronies and also with members of the next generations, will help me feel younger longer.

  1. He was able to laugh at himself toward the end of his life; he would often tell the story of how shrewd he thought he was at the time, to forego the opportunity to own half of Seaside for $4,000.

  2. Reminders of J.S.’s vision for Seaside are found in Camp Smolian, a celebration of his original idea and Smolian Circle, the street which encircles the Lyceum, the center for education and the arts which J.S. and Bob envisioned for the parcel given to the University. “Dreamland Heights”, the downtown building designed by Steven Holl, was also the name J.S. gave to a small subdivision he planned next to Seagrove.