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Scandinavia on the Panhandle

Robert A. M. Stern Architects combines Classical details and the beach house tradition in the firm's first house at Seaside.

Project: Seaside House, Seaside, FL

Architect: Robert A. M. Stern Architects, LLP, New York, NY, Robert A. M. Stern, principal; Gary L. Brewer, partner

Contractor: O.B. Laurent Construction, Inc., Santa Rosa Beach, FL

By Eve M. Kahn

Erudition and beach houses normally do not mix well, except when as deft an architect as Robert A. M. Stern brings them together. And he has synthesized them inventively at his first project at Seaside, the New Urbanist model resort on the Florida Panhandle.

Stern has called himself "Uncle Seaside" for his role in eloquently promoting traditional town planning and nurturing countless architects who have built along Seaside's gridded byways. Stern also helped master plan Seaside's most successful year-round offspring: Celebration, the New Urbanist community near Disney World. In the early 1990s, when winning over Disney executives to this radical concept, Stern toured them through Seaside. "It proved to them," the architect recalls, "that this kind of development can shape an environment into something memorable and a great place to live," where there had previously just been sand and scrub and spec houses.

Uncle Seaside's first built work at the resort is meant to take the local architectural canon to new heights of sophistication without making any distracting aesthetic statement. Stern led the design team with Gary Brewer, a partner at Robert

A. M. Stern Architects (RAMSA). The 2,700-sq.ft. house belongs to Lisa and Robert Nesbitt, an Alabama couple with three children. It's their third home at Seaside, where they have been vacationing practically since the town debuted in the 1980s. The idiosyncrasies of their Stern house suit the family, while often attracting tourists. "People love the folly quality of the place," says Brewer. "They take pictures, and sometimes go right up and knock on the door and ask to look around."

Stern had been hoping to build at Seaside since the Nesbitts first started frequenting the town. In 1984, RAMSA developed a proposal for a turreted hotel, with breezeways crossing over Seaside's patch of state highway, but the plan fizzled. The Nesbitts, who had been longtime fans of Stern's shingled country houses, gave his office pretty much carte blanche for their beachfront site. The firm took on everything from the garden beds to the interior color schemes. "They came to us and said, ‘We want to build an icon, something really special, that adds to the overall quality of the place,'" Brewer recalls. "They're patient and eager patrons, with such a great level of connoisseurship and level of attachment and commitment to the town." Brewer gradually steered the couple toward Gustavian Classical precedents, since he had just toured Sweden under the auspices of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America (he has served as a board member and instructor). But nothing at Narnia – the Nesbitts' name for their Stern house, based on their children's favorite bedtime reading – was quoted verbatim from Scandinavia.

The narrow lot called for three floors of tightly nestled rooms. "We joke that we went all the way to Seaside to design a New York City townhouse," Brewer says. Each floor has its own porch plus a distinctive form of wooden cladding and columns. Rusticated faux-scored stone and fluted Doric columns at beach level give way to beveled clapboard above, amid pocket doors overlooking spindly balcony railings, Doric square pilasters, and fluted columns with incised Greek frets. And the acroteria-studded rooftop pergola, reinforced with a little steel, rests on a dramatically isolated Ionic column. "The single column opens up interior views and is something very memorable to see from the beach," explains Brewer.

The varied exterior finishes extend deep into Narnia. Coquina stone slabs serve as pavement around the building, as well as flooring inside the ground-floor foyer and corridors. Ceilings and walls for the porches and most of the interior are made of bead board, v-jointed planks or board-and-batten. "There's not a stitch of Sheetrock in the house," Brewer exults.

Yet for all the rustic indoor-outdoor quality of the rooms, RAMSA incorporated rarefied references to architectural history. Wooden privacy grilles on beach-level windows have tiers of scallops reminiscent of Art Deco. The rooftop's acroteria reappear in muntins on the kitchen cabinets' glass doors, and more acroteria are incised into the molding over the living room's herringbone-brick fireplace. A mural above the fireplace conceals a flat-screen TV, and depicts foliage swags – a motif that recurs in a carved wooden relief (commissioned from Frederick Wilbur of Lovingston, VA) perched between casement windows on the exterior. Even a faceted alcove in a child's bedroom has lofty ancestry: Jefferson's quarters at Monticello.

The Nesbitt house, Brewer explains, "is high style and vernacular at the same time. It's highly detailed and has its own expression, but it fits into a streetscape that's more important than any individual building. Seaside is like a living pattern book, and every new house there is an opportunity to make the pattern book better." Narnia, he adds, could well represent a turning point in contemporary Classical architecture. "Classical architects of this generation can feel comfortable that the language, the correct syntax, the standards of appropriateness and craftsmanship, are being recaptured, finally, instead of being the subject of Postmodern jokey-ness. So now we have chances to push past correctness, into the realm of something unexpected. And where better to do that than at Seaside, an architectural laboratory that's been radical in its own way all these years?"

Numerous prominent Classicists from around the world have toured and praised the house, including Demetri Porphyrios, Seaside planners Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Christine Franck, Richard Sammons and Robert Orr. Stern looks forward to seeing Narnia influence various Classical architects, especially along the Panhandle. "I hope it sets a new standard,"he says, "especially with its feeling of permanence and solidity."He can even envision the town of Seaside, where a few teardowns have already occurred and more are being contemplated, protecting Narnia itself with covenants for the long term: "I hope, someday, it will get landmarked."  

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