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Community Builders: Walter Chatham

Posted on Sep 01, 2015 in September–October 2015 , Walter Chatham , Architect

Walter Chatham

When Seaside first began, it bore little resemblance to the town that exists today. Now there are streets, pavement, houses and lights; then there was only scrub and beach, white sands and green foliage.

This is the Seaside Walter Chatham and his wife, Mary, encountered when they first visited the area in 1982 at the invitation of his former employers, architects and Seaside planners Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.

“When I first laid eyes on Seaside, it was a completely timbered, kind of scruffy, sandy place,” Chatham recounts.

There was no air conditioning at the time, and the love bugs were plentiful, so that they were several times awakened by a few of the insects flying into their mouths. Yet, despite the lack of amenities, the couple felt charmed by the place saying, “Somehow, through all of that, we got how cool it was … [and] the beach was the most beautiful thing anybody had ever seen.”

Duany suggested Chatham be given the task of designing the Lyceum. Seaside’s co-founder Robert Davis, lacking the funds to compensate Chatham for his work, offered instead to give him a great price on a lot in the new town. Chatham accepted and began designs for his first building in Seaside — the Chatham House.

At that time, Duany wanted to prove new urbanism was not limited to vintage architectural designs. He therefore encouraged Chatham to “push the code,” in order to show how flexible new urbanism was and how much variation it could accommodate. This Chatham did, creating one of the most iconic and controversial buildings in Seaside. When it was finished, the Chatham House stood in stark contrast to Seaside’s other existing structures. Where those buildings were made of wood, and resembled Victorian homes, the Chatham House featured metal cladding on the walls, and displayed a distinctly modern design. It was composed of two unconnected buildings with a courtyard between them, partly inspired by the arrangement of the Shrimp Shack and Bud & Alley’s Waterfront Restaurant, as they existed at that time.

The Chatham House went on to win many awards, and Chatham himself designed several other buildings for the town. He and Mary returned to Seaside for many years, bringing their kids along with them. The pedestrian footpaths and safety felt “liberating” to parents used to the chaos and intensity of New York City. During this time, Chatham says it was amazing to watch Seaside’s “different transformations, from sparsely developed sand roads and simple, humble cracker cottages, through the time they started building on the west side [of Hwy. 30A]. All of a sudden, the real estate was so valuable people were putting up $3 million houses.”

Chatham believes part of what continues to make Seaside so enduringly appealing throughout its transformation, is that it has always held true to the “funky, populist” roots it embraced from its beginning, and that these ideals help it maintain an atmosphere that is both relaxing and fun. Though he has since sold the houses he designed, he remains strongly connected to the town. Reflecting back on the work of designing those houses, he says, “Architecture rarely gets to be fun the way Seaside was fun.”

The Chatham House, built by Walter Chatham in 1989, shows that Seaside is about outdoor living, and displays the variation the Seaside Code accommodates. Photos courtesy the Seaside archives