From sidewalks to classrooms, town architect lays out the Seaside Model by Ann Lewis
Scott Merrill, partner of Merrill, Pastor and Colgan Architects, was Seaside’s town architect from 1988-1990. During his time here, he designed the Seaside Chapel, Honeymoon Cottages, and the Motor Court for the Seaside town plan. His firm received a national American Institute of Architects award for the chapel in 2004. Merrill later won the Seaside Prize in 2012.
Merrill notes that as town architect he was given an incredible opportunity to grow professionally that he might otherwise not have received. He explains that Seaside founder Robert Davis had remarkable trust in people who were relatively inexperienced. Although Merrill had worked for good firms in Washington, D.C., he had never built anything on his own before. His first task was to build the Honeymoon Cottages. As he says, “Robert gave me 200 feet of the most beautiful beaches in Florida.” These comprised the first row of cottages along the coast.
He shared Davis’ approach to Seaside’s style, which is founded on a limited number of building types. Before Merrill began the Honeymoon Cottages, “the simple types were set aside for these ever more ambitious one-off houses,” he says, “which were more expensive, more singular.” Indeed, these houses, while indicative of Seaside’s prominence, were a variance from the original notion that there was a great deal of confidence in a limited number of building types.
This notion of a disciplined classicism, where the focus is on the impression of the town rather than the impression of each house, is evident in the chapel’s unique design. Merrill was charged with creating one of the last public buildings, which also had to be visible from anywhere in the town. He explains that as houses began to adopt classical styles rather than the more rustic, simpler types, it became difficult to distinguish a common building like the chapel. “What I really wanted to do was go back and have the chapel recall the vision of Seaside,” he explains. Merrill incorporated elements of 19th Century stick style, “aspects of classical architecture, as well as obvious references to the sort of ruder and more rustic buildings that marked the first street in Seaside.”
Merrill’s dedication to the repetition of dignified types, where houses play a supporting role and the town’s design focuses on bringing as many people as you can along with you, inspired the design of the Motor Court, which included a laundromat, storage units and employee parking. “Yet, every building type, no matter how modest, must contribute to the town,” he says. “In other words, take something that is essential and make it aesthetically beautiful in its way.” To this end, the Motor Court has a courtyard that was often used for parties and public gatherings.
“We thought of Seaside as a symbol of other towns,” he remembers. “An instructive town, a town whose lessons could be picked up and taken to other places. Students are here all the time. A few weeks go, I spoke with students from Auburn taking notes in the town. To a greater degree, students are all over. They are sketching street intersections and noting the width of sidewalks.”
There is so much to learn from Seaside, Merrill says. “Places less fortunate can find lessons to draw from Seaside, benefiting from transferrable lessons that can take root, even if they do not have all the resources.”
Merrill says that his greatest lesson from working in Seaside has been that he places a lot of importance on good effect — making decisions that will truly improve the qualities of the lives that use that building.
“Ultimately, your greatest hope in your limited professional lifespan — where there are too many buildings, too many towns — is that you can leverage the limited time by instructing more than one design model,” he says. “Seaside does just that. It continues to spawn other places.”