A Reflection on the First Ten Years

A Dream Defined

A Reflection on the First Ten Years
Images Rob Culpepper

In the late 1970s, Jim Stephens along with his wife, Julie, and his father, Elton B. Stephens, came to an auction for 158 acres on the then very secluded Highway 30A on Florida’s Gulf Coast. This was a very special place, and they knew they wanted the property. Since 1949, their family had owned several small cottages at a small beachside crossroad called Seagrove, and a love for the quiet, pristine beaches and natural beauty had become a very significant part of the family’s life. The idea of investing in a large tract of this magical, untouched place was very exciting. There was no Seaside yet. There was no Rosemary Beach, no Watercolor. This was just pure scrub oak, sand, and crystal blue water. They were not yet sure what that something would be, but they knew that this was the opportunity to, one day, do something significant in this place. The day was hot. It was September 9th. The auction had begun promptly at 11 o’clock in the morning, and shortly after lunch the property was theirs. The seed of a dream had been planted. Elton B. Stephens was a strong businessman. He had started his company, EBSCO, from the ground up, and now it was going well on all fronts. On this day he had invested in the future. But importantly, Elton B. Stephens was also a strong family man. He also invested in his family. Driving home that day, one could rest assured that an important thought was on his mind. “I hope my wife, Alys, likes it.”

Jim Stephens

In 2004 the dream finally came to life. Alys Beach was born. As we celebrate our 10th year, it is only fitting that we reflect on these past formative years. It is only fitting that we reflect on the dream we so fondly call Alys Beach. So many people have been a part of the dream, and over the coming year, we will be talking to some of those people who have been so closely connected to that dream. In this issue we ask Jim Stephens, Chairman of EBSCO and the developer of Alys Beach, Dixon Brooke, former CEO and current Board of Directors member of EBSCO, Jason Comer, Alys Beach town founder, and Andrés Duany and Galina Tachieva, both of DPZ, the town planners of Alys Beach, to reflect on the dream we have come to know as Alys Beach.

Alys Gazette: Some of you actually grew up coming to 30A long before there was an Alys Beach, or a Seaside, or very much of anything else. What was that like? Jim Stephens: “When I was very young, we used to go down to Laguna Beach for a quick summer vacation. A Mr. C.H. McGee was the rental agent at Laguna, and a few years later he had an opportunity to buy the land that became Seagrove Beach. He laid out Seagrove in what today is called a TND pattern where there was a little grocery store that was like a town center and then houses around it. He started selling lots, and in 1949 my father bought two beach front lots in Seagrove for $3500 each. I was 10 years old. My father built two concrete houses, and he let people in the company use one, and we used the other for summer vacations. The area was a bit wild at that time. I remember we used to have to keep the garbage in steel racks because there were a lot of wild pigs that would come out and get in the cans. People started to buy up these lots, and before long a small community was born. However, it was still just a handful of people. There was no traffic, and there were mostly dirt roads. We drove jeeps everywhere, even down on the beach. There was no road from Seagrove directly to Grayton Beach. You had to drive out to Highway 98 to get there. In fact, what is now 30A was really just a series of dirt roads and paths, but it was a delightful place to go.

Dixon Brooke: My experience was a little different. I grew up spending summers with my grandparents along the bay in Panama City. When we wanted to go to the beach, my grandfather took us to Panama City Beach. But when we really wanted to go into the wild, we would head west toward Phillips Inlet, right around where Camp Helen is now. He was a pompano fisherman so my brother and I would go with him to catch pompano there right off the beach because it was so remote. Rather than go to summer camp, we went to visit my grandparents in Florida. It was wonderful. I started going to Seagrove in about 1968. Even then it was remote.

Jason Comer : I get emotional thinking about it. I was born and raised in Eufaula, Alabama. My Dad was very busy running Avondale Mills, but when we came down here—well, it was our special time. Coming here growing up was great. It was totally underdeveloped. There was a house maybe every one or two miles. The house my father built was right on the beach at Inlet Beach. I mean it was right on the beach. It was before there were restrictions. He built it right on the beach on stilts. We had no air conditioning, no tv, no dishwasher, and it was amazing! There was maybe only one restaurant around so we cooked almost all our own meals. We were always together just swimming and playing and exploring. Our aunts and uncles and cousins and grand parents had their place in Seagrove so the trek over there from Inlet Beach was a journey unto itself. My dad would pull onto the side of the road and tell us stories of wild pigs just to spook us. It was a simple time, a magical time. I think those times were formative in my passion for Alys Beach. Creating Alys Beach was large. We were trying to create a place that was all about those highly formative and memorable events in our childhood. And when you approach something with that sort of love in your heart, you give it everything.

Dixon Brooke

Andrés Duany: I can’t speak to growing up here, but I can speak to changes I have seen since the late 70s. It has been a kind of thirty-year epic in which a place that was a backwater now has one of the greatest collections of excellent architecture and urbanism in Florida, perhaps even the entire South. The remarkable thing is that it was a process in which everyone—the architects, the developers, the builders, and even the buyers—progressively improved their performance. It has been influential nationally—something that no one could have predicted. To simplify, it has been a great and gratifying surprise.

Galina Tachieva: The first time I saw Seaside was in 1993. I was an intern at DPZ, and the office took its first organized visit to the Panhandle. We chartered a bus, drove all night, and arrived at dawn in time to witness a fairy-tale apparition in the most amazing early light. A collective sigh could be heard as we drove into this magical town enveloped in a pastel-colored mist. There and then I knew I’d correctly chosen my professional destiny. Two years later I participated in the first Rosemary Beach charrette, and changes along 30A were even more noticeable. The Seaside influence was spreading along the coastline. A new standard for compact urbanism and authentic traditional construction was being set. Today an even higher quality is expected from architects and planners. The multiple projects along the Gulf prove there is a more sophisticated way to view resorts and assess their value and desirability. Location along a great beach is but one of many qualities, and excellent buildings and superb public spaces mean almost as much, if not more. This is especially true about Alys Beach. The biggest change I can report from my many trips to the villages of 30A since 1993, often with potential clients, is that I now almost forget to mention there is a beach.

Alys Gazette: What have been some of the defining moments at Alys Beach?

Jim Stephens: I think one of the most defining moments would be that we immediately began to get a good flow of sales right at the start of the race. People almost immediately caught on to the vision. We built Fonville, and then we built the sales center-and built it almost as a house so everyone could get a real glimpse of the architecture. We built sidewalks, we put in roads, we established covenants, and we clearly defined the architectural language. There was no hesitation. The first year and a half before the recession, we really had great momentum. People were receptive, and that moment made us feel good. We knew we had to stick with what we wanted to do. We stayed the course. That was truly a defining moment. I think another moment was starting with the right team, beginning with Jason Comer. He was instrumental in setting the bar. We were going to make everything as good as it could be. Choosing DPZ, as the town planner, and our town architects, Erik and Marianne Vogt, and our first sales manager, Karen Terrell, all proved to be defining moments.

Jason Comer

Dixon Brooke: Planning. I have seen that to be truly defining to what we have done here. And I agree with Jim, the people that we have connected with have defined our success in so many ways over the past 10 years.

Jason Comer: When you’re passionate about an undertaking you’re about to do, and in your mind it is one of the most important things that’s ever happened to you, you want everyone else involved to feel the same way. So you try and surround yourself with people who are just as passionate about the project as you are. I think we have done that. I think those moments of bringing on those people have helped define us. There is no one person who did it. It is a million percent collaboration. The man who puts the stucco on a house is as important as the man who drew the plan for the house. That way of looking at life here is what defines us. There are many significant pieces of architecture here that have truly been defining moments in our journey: Caliza, the boulevard design on 30A, and probably the most important, the style of architecture we chose. Choosing the Bermuda/Antigua style of architecture was a defining moment. Andrés Duany had been wanting to do it for years. Once I went to Antigua, Guatemala, I knew I wanted to do it as well. I knew it would work. That decision was a defining moment, because I think a person has to look at Alys Beach to a certain extent and say, whoever developed that knew what they were doing. They had courage to do something great. We had the determination to do something very different and to figure out how to make it work. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. It wasn’t. But making that decision pushed us from the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Andrés Duany: A defining moment was the commitment to excellence of the developer and the family who had owned it, who not only expected but also was mentally prepared to build excellence. It became apparent there was a much higher performance required of us and of the builders than we expected. We never would have recommended anyone but an architect so talented. It was literally the best job in the world.

Galina Tachieva: Alys Beach is a legacy project in every sense. It was a legacy for the Stephens family, who were building on land owned for generations, a legacy for Jason Comer, who was a first time town founder, and a planning legacy for DPZ and the design team. It was a truly inspired project—a lucky combination of ideas about building type (the courtyard) and architectural syntax (Bermuda style with sculptural solid white volumes). Alys Beach was also fortunate to acquire an artistically gifted pair of Town Architects, who from the very beginning have carried the torch of excellence with energy, creativity, and diplomacy in leading a score of talented designers. The Town Architects have set an example of exceptional quality for both the public and private realms, particularly with their superb civic infrastructure projects: the Gulf Green, the bridge over Lake Marilyn, the pedestrian paths, and the Caliza Pool, among others.

Alys Gazette: What were some of your proudest moments with Alys Beach? JS: I'm very proud of the fact that during those rough times of the recession that we did not sacrifice; we kept true to the dream and the spirit of Alys Beach; we didn’t drastically change to some other approach during those circumstances. Jason and I decided from the beginning that we would not work with square feet here at Alys Beach; we worked with square inches. We were going to make every little thing as good as it could possibly be, and it has been very fulfilling.

DB: From the time the property was acquired, it has evolved during so many different steps along the way. The vision is coming to life. I’m glad that Alys Beach has remained true to quality and remained steady—always leading with new and better ways to do things.

JC: The fundamentals of Alys Beach have been strong the entire time. When we were going through the great recession, Jim had the choice to change the vision. No. We’re sticking with it. Defining moment. Sticking to our guns. We’re going to come out of this thing. Jim was just as confused as the people on Wall Street. We had no idea what was happening, but he decided he was going to stick to it. So many people in this world do so many amazing things, and this is my own little amazing experience that I got to be vitally at the center of involvement with a team of amazing people to create a place like this. This place is fantastic; it's not like an old mill that will fade away. This place will be here years from now, and I hope that even my great-great-great-grandchildren might even come here at some point. And I think that is really special.

Andrés Duany

AD: Every day and every time one of us visits Alys Beach is a moment of swallowing pride. Personally, I feel like it's Christmas every three months or so when I come to see all the wonderful buildings.

GT: One of my most satisfying moments remains the first pedestrian street taking shape: a tight, linear space of irregular shape framing the trajectory to the beach. This street embodied how this very unusual project would come to life. We had previously never created a thoroughfare so thoroughly lined with contiguous building fronts, and it took every ounce of our collective talent to ensure we arrived at a coherent, well calibrated, and infinitely interesting result. I am reminded of the pivotal moment at the architectural charrette when we first assembled the different elevations from the many architects to see how the street would look. We realized we needed so much more coordination, more discipline, more restraint. That is when we pulled out the scissors and started trimming the extra height, extravagant elements, and other features that were not contributing to a harmonious whole.

Alys Gazette: What do you want the legacy of Alys Beach to be? JS: I have always wanted the legacy of Alys Beach to be a community where families have found a vacation resort home, which they take great pleasure in returning to as frequently as possible, and they don’t really look for any other spot. I want it to endure in such a way that the next generation continues that connection with Alys Beach, and there is great pleasure in perhaps raising their children in the same vacation spot they enjoyed as children. I want it to be an enduring community, which, with as many people as possible, is seen as a home location when they vacation. I want it to maintain its quality. I believe it will, because in my opinion, if you build well and maintain as we see in Europe, there’s no reason it can’t last 300, 500, 700 years. You don’t have to tear it down every 100 years. If the architecture and design are sound from the beginning, you don’t have to decide 15 years from now that it isn’t in style anymore. I want this to be a truly enduring community.

DB: I want it to pay tribute to the name. I think Alys Stephens would be proud of this place. I think she would think it truly beautiful. I want that feeling to endure. Of course, I want it to always be a tremendous success, but I want the name to always signify quality. I want the name to always stand for doing things the right way.

JC: This project is still a little baby. It really is. There are so many amazing things that are going to happen over the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years. And beyond. It really will take that long for it to get built out. I don’t think people realize how incredible this place is going to become. I think the legacy will be that, right here on 30A, we will be leaving the world one of the most unique and beautiful, little villages you could find. I want that to be our legacy. I also want our legacy to be that we created a place where people felt free to play and have fun and to develop memories. I can tell you what I really want the legacy to be. I want it to be like the good old days at Inlet Beach and Seagrove where everybody is free and happy, and nobody is fighting and bickering, and everyone is having watermelon on the Fourth of July and swimming and having fun and falling to sleep at night, exhausted because the day was so great. That is what I want the legacy to be.

Galina Tachieva

AD: The legacy of Alys Beach is going to be technical. It will introduce an architecture that is resistant to hurricanes and an architecture that is both ecological and beautiful. It will introduce the pleasures of Latin America to your house. It will, of course, also have trained a great number of voters and perhaps a generation or two of your architects to do wildly wonderful work that they would not ever have had the chance to do previously. Since the buyers come from all over the world, I am certain that, like Seaside and Rosemary Beach previously, they will take the ideas home, and they will have an effect there, too.

GT: Alys Beach had the great advantage of being built on the experience of Seaside and Rosemary Beach. It is the most carefully controlled among the three projects, with the most refined urban and architectural code. The design controls attempt to strike a delicate balance between fortified, masonry dwellings and the natural, fragile beauty of the beach to the south and the wetlands to the north. Its ultimate legacy could be its economic success, one that ideally will become ever more vibrant because it acquires many year-round residents. My other hope is that it be remembered for its visual poetry. Arguably the best-looking project along 30A, Alys Beach is undeniably a fanciful sandcastle that has risen out of the white Panhandle dunes, a place where urbanism, architecture, landscape, art, and green infrastructure all converged in a rarified atmosphere of controlled exuberance. In this regard, it participates in Florida’s longest development tradition, that of luring visitors and residents to a fantasy setting based on exotic imagery from far, far away.