Architect Eric Watson had designed more than 25 houses in the neotraditional community of Rosemary Beach in Florida’s panhandle before he set out to design his own home there. An oasis of good design, Rosemary Beach and its nearby precursor Seaside are new towns with urban codes requiring that residences adhere to specified traditional styles.
The overall effect is an environment that revives not only a range of historic architecture but also the historic urban streetscapes and settings in which that architecture was typically found. This revival approach makes for a level of authenticity that’s not possible in the automobile-driven suburbs of postwar America, regardless of how fervently traditional building styles are used.
Watson’s house is a compelling example of a new old house in a new old town. His predominant architectural inspirations are a synthesis of Dutch Colonial, French Colonial, and Mission styles. The Dutch Colonial component is apparent in ornamented parapet (above roof-level) walls and 12-over-12 sash windows. The French Colonial contribution is found in the broken pitch of the hipped roof and in the masonry base that supports a wood-framed second-story living space. The Mission influence, though more subtle, is present in the massive brackets that support the porches and bays extending off the main structure. The mission style is also embodied in the window configurations and in the two ornate parapet walls (wall above roofline) of the main structure. Watson was influenced by house designs he had seen in the Dutch West Indies, however the graceful arch motifs in his parapets are reminiscent of the Spanish missions as well.
The intertwining of distinct architectural styles spanning three centuries is a significant design achievement, but it is not the only criterion that defines Watson’s house as a contemporary design based on historical antecedents-as opposed to a literal copy of an old building. The unique single-story side wing is a significant alteration to the more common historical form of the main structure and it has a clear purpose that both enhances livability and adapts the house to its site.
The lot Watson chose to build on is not a neat rectangle. (A notch cuts into the west side of the property, while the northwest side angles abruptly to the right.) This odd shaped site posed a unique design challenge that Watson met with ingenuity. He designed a side wing that protrudes from the main structure initially at a conventional right angle but which then turns at an oblique angle out to the street, terminating in a simple parapet wall parallel. The bend in the building mirrors the bend in the street. This unusual annex encircles a small piece of land that Watson fenced to create a private courtyard.
As Christopher Alexander observed in A Pattern Language, “Buildings, and especially houses, with a graceful transition between the street and the inside, are more tranquil than those which open directly off the street.” Watson realized that-particularly within the urban setting of Rosemary Beach-his house would benefit significantly from a graceful, transitional space between the private realm of the home and the public realm of the street. As Watson expresses it, “The disposition of the architectural massing on the site is a direct response to the urban context.” His comment pertains not only to the entry, but to the side wing’s single story, which preserves a view for a neighboring property out to Long Green Park, a public space of pristine turf that bisects Rosemary Beach.
Within the interior of the house, some quite contemporary design ideas come forth. The main living level is on the second floor-an open loftlike plan with living and dining areas separated by a stair landing ascending from the first-floor entryway. Generous windows open out on the eastern face of the house to views of the park. “The entry is orchestrated to heighten the experience of arrival in the second-floor living room culminating in the park vista,” says Watson. The communal spaces are bathed in outdoor light tempered only by shady porch overhangs. There are no window treatments, since Watson didn’t want the architectural detailing of the windows with their grid of small panes interrupted. These “naked” windows add to the loftlike quality of the space. Coffered ceiling panels incorporated a touch of Mission styling to the interiors. The furnishings in the living room are an eclectic mix of Arts and Crafts tables, Moderne leather club chairs, and a contemporary sofa. A large sisal rug contrasts with the dark-oak plank floor in the room.
The centerpiece of the dining room is a large, circular, hand-carved Italian table. A dish cabinet is built into the dining room wall and the room is flanked by a galley kitchen. The dining room, stairway, and living room all feature contemporary metal chandeliers based on traditional designs.
Below, on the ground floor, are three bedrooms and three baths. The master bedroom is in the side wing, which separates it from the rest of the house, offering privacy. The entry foyer divides two guest bedrooms, each with adjacent bathrooms. As with the communal rooms upstairs, the layout downstairs is based on contemporary rather than historical living patterns.
The traditional architectural styles and form of the exterior of the house are complemented by purely vernacular inspirations in the diamond-painted pattern of the custom-designed mahogany shutters. The diamond motif in Chinese red and French-Quarter green was inspired by shutters on a house on the Dutch island of Curacao. Elaborate painted motifs and the bold use of color typically embellish simple building details. But, in this case, Watson has used paint to add a touch of whimsy to the more formal traditional references of his house.
Watson’s development of the property did not begin with the main structure, which was completed in December 2003. It began with a small carriage house sited at the back of the lot completed in November 2000. The carriage house incorporates parking for two cars on the ground floor and a small (540-square-foot) apartment above. A 6-foot masonry fence encloses the compound. A rear courtyard between the main house and carriage house is currently under construction and will complement the entry courtyard.
Eric Watson’s Rosemary Beach house fuses the past and present on many levels. Not only has Watson harmoniously blended distinct historical styles, but he has also integrated contemporary room layouts and amenities within the historic envelope. The necessities of modern living are provided for and historical architectural styles are respected-hallmarks of a new old house.
Richard Sextonis an architectural historian and photographer living in New Orleans.