Idyllic artists colony still makes one linger longer by Pratt Farmer
Most know that the hit movie, “The Truman Show,” was filmed in Seaside and released in 1998. In fact, the movie producers endowed the Ruskin Place Homeowners Association with $125,000 to renovate their park after production ceased. Many will remember the art deco looking building where Truman went to work every day. That was in Ruskin Place, just north of Central Square, where today you will discover an enclave of townhomes, shops, art studios and people-watchers. Remember in the movie, what Truman says to a fellow co-worker who had stopped to let him enter the revolving doors to the office building? Truman’s response was “I’m not that anxious to get there.” Nothing could be further from the truth today. Everyone is anxious to get to Ruskin Place.
In 1987 Bill and Mary Florence Forsythe read an article in House Beautiful about a little town in the Florida Panhandle. They were so intrigued by the vision of its founders, Robert and Daryl Davis, they booked a flight from Chicago to Fort Walton Beach that week. Because Mary Florence was a sculptor, the idea of an art colony, within the town of Seaside, where she could sculpt in the ground floor space and they could live above her studio, was intriguing. So much so that they bought a lot before heading back to Chicago. Working with architect Walter Chatham, plans were drawn, revised and finally approved. Their unique home in the quaint village of Ruskin Place was soon to become a reality.
The Forsythes were the first family to begin construction in what is now Ruskin Place Artists Colony, which is comprised of 20 townhomes, all unique. No cookie cutter tract homes allowed. Seaside residents and visitors have discovered the un-matched charm of the townhomes, all facing a park. It’s a European-styled village within a town. Art studios and tiny boutiques offer treasures not found elsewhere. You can chat with homeowners who often sit on their second or third floor balconies to enjoy the park. Listen and you might hear classical music from a home on the eastern side of the park. Say ‘hello” if you think about it! Today the park in Ruskin Place is almost completely covered by a canopy of sand live oaks surrounded by a well laid out pattern of walls, wooden benches and ground cover. The park has evolved, matured and welcomed thousands since it was built.
As mentioned, the park in Ruskin Place wasn’t always like it is today. With the gift from the movie producers, the Forsythes and other homeowners got together to talk about designing and building a new park that would be more of a respite from the hustle and bustle of the now busy little town. Mary Florence and Georgina Callan, another homeowner, began to take everyone’s ideas and transform them to paper. At the urging of the Davises they hired landscape architect Brad Davis. “I was a young architect and working with the folks at Seaside was probably one of the most fun projects in my career. The homeowners all had great ideas and they knew what their park should look like. Mary Florence and Bill encouraged me to push the envelope and get out of my comfort zone. What you see today is a result of the homeowners collectively. I was just implementing their vision,” says Davis.
An example of pushing the envelope was the concrete wall that enshrouds the park. Everyone wanted the park to be a place where people could rest, enjoy an impromptu musical performance, watch a presentation of interpretive dance or take an afternoon nap on the lawn. The wall initially was grassed. “We designed the wall to be the exact width of lawnmower tires, so it would be easy to keep trimmed,” says Mary Florence. It was the perfect spot to sit and relax. Today, grass has been replaced with plants that require minimal sunlight due to the wonderful tree canopy.
Every park needs an entrance and following the tradition of centuries-old European parks, Mary Florence and Laura Granberry designed an iron gate. They engaged local artist and fabricator, Jos Bekkers to complete it. “Jos is an awesome artist and he was able to take our sketch and transform it into a true work of art,” says Bill Forsythe. True to form with the creativity of practically every owner in Ruskin Place, the rustic iron gate was designed to incorporate objects that represent the park and the little village within Seaside. “We have always loved challenging young and old alike to find the hidden objects in the gate,” says fulltime resident Glenn Seawell. Legend has it that if you find all the hidden objects, your day will be magical.
Along with trees, walls, grass and ground cover, the park today has a low-to-the-ground stage that is used to entertain guests of Ruskin Place. On any given day you might listen to a jazz ensemble, meditate on the words spoken by a poet or watch a painter transform a piece of canvas into a work of art.
In a magazine article from several years ago, town founder Robert Davis says, “The original idea for Ruskin Place was for a workshop district with artisans living above ground floor workspace dedicated to woodworking, potting, metalwork, etc. The central space would be used to hawk the crafts to Sunday morning churchgoers. The chapel, located beyond Ruskin Place was designed to be a beacon, clearly visible from Central Square and drawing people back into Ruskin Place.” That vision lives on and every day you will find people strolling the sidewalks, browsing through the boutiques and stopping to gaze upward. Maybe they hear music coming from someone’s home. Say hello to Glenn Seawell if you do.