How Robert and Daryl Davis Sculpted Florida’s Famous Seaside

Seaside’s SculptorsHow Robert and Daryl Davis developed one of Florida’s most famous towns   By Linda Kleindienst

Robert Davis remembers building sand castles on the sugar white beaches of Northwest Florida when he was only three years old. Little did he know that four decades later he would be building homes nearby in a little beach town called Seaside and giving birth to a neighborhood living concept that would become known as "New Urbanism."

It all started with his maternal grandfather. In 1946 Joseph Smolian, a Birmingham, Ala., department store owner who loved to bring his family to Florida’s Gulf Coast on vacation, bought 80 acres of scrubby beachfront at $100 an acre. Some family members called it "worthless sand." Smolian had hoped to make it a summer camp for his employees, but when that didn’t work out he tucked the deed away, vowing, "One of these days it’ll be worth something."

Little did he know.

When Davis inherited the unimproved land in the mid-1970s, his building gene kicked into high gear. Along with wife Daryl, he traveled Europe and then cruised the back roads of Florida in a red Pontiac convertible to get architectural inspiration from old towns and buildings. The young couple decided to develop their own town on the 80 acres and build homes in harmony with the environment, establishing a community where living, working and playing were within walking distance of each other.

"We weren’t really selling houses," says Davis, now 65 years old. "We were selling an idea for living in a neighborhood."

They started out in 1981, with two homes — one was the sales office, the other served as the Davis home and Seaside model. On Saturdays they held an open-air market to foster the sense of community but often ended up taking most of the fruits and vegetables home.

"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," Davis says with a wry smile.

Sales took off when they hired a professional salesman. He sold six lots in the first week.

In 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 — the Davises encourage merchants to work closely to promote Seaside as a destination, to continue fostering the name brand.

"And we make sure when people get here their experience of shopping, dining or even picking up a hot dog is as quality as it can be," he says.

Daryl Davis, whose creative focus has been on Seaside’s retail side, believes that in times of emotional turmoil, when people have a lot of uncertainty in their lives, they like to come back to a place where things haven’t changed, to where they feel a sense of home. In Seaside, there are no chain stores, only Mom and Pop operations reminiscent of the days of yesteryear when life seemed simpler and less demanding. And she has strived to keep alive the concept of the Saturday outdoor market.

"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. "This is what I think people are longing for."

For budding entrepreneurs, Robert Davis has some sage advice to offer.

"Follow your passion," he says. "Do not pay too much attention to conventional wisdom, but try to learn from experience — especially your own — but (also) from others over a long period of history. You can learn more from Marcus Aurelius than from the latest advice from a financial writer."