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Architectural Odyssey

The Art and Act of Building as a Passion, Not a Profession

By Lynn Nesmith
Photography by Jack Gardner

If “life is a journey, not a destination,” then some might make the case that when it comes to building a home, it’s the process—not necessarily the final product—that counts.

David and Marsha Dowler certainly enjoy every step along the way. “I like to think of myself as an architectural patron, or maybe I’m just a serial home builder,” laughs David. By any name, it’s obvious that the Dowlers are thoughtful clients who are doing their part to enrich the built environment through creating engaging structures with a sense of place.

A Texas native, David grew up going to Panama City Beach in the summers and admits he always longed for a house right on the Gulf of Mexico. “With this project, I guess I achieved my goal. I had the opportunity to design and build my dream home on a most amazing piece of waterfront property,” he says. “Now I’m content to let it go so someone else can own it and enjoy it.”

Home with trees

This latest residential journey started more than a decade ago in the early days of the WaterSound Beach community on Scenic Highway 30-A in Northwest Florida, when David and Marsha purchased a prime lot overlooking Camp Creek Lake and the Gulf. They were already big fans of the area usually known simply as “30-A,” having built two houses there in the New Urban community of Seaside. The couple was married there twenty years ago, and Marsha is one of the founders of Seaside’s Escape to Create artist-in-residency program.

David was ready for a construction project, and upon seeing the expansive dunes and meandering outflow of the rare coastal dune lake at Camp Creek, he knew this was the place to embark on his next architectural adventure. Living full time in Dallas, the Dowlers had recently moved into a new house designed by Scott Merrill of Merrill, Pastor and Colgan Architects. Scott had served as Seaside’s town architect years ago when David was building his first home in the fledgling town. Now the firm has offices in Atlanta and Vero Beach, Florida.

For his home on the Gulf, David turned to Scott’s partner David Colgan. In keeping with WaterSound’s ordained Shingle style architecture, Colgan looked to timeless East Coast precedents from Nantucket, Cape Cod, and Nags Head for inspiration, yet his design stays clearly focused on the Panhandle’s weather and ways. “David and Marsha had a vision and brought their ideas to the table,” recalls Colgan. “We pushed each other. It was a true collaboration in the best sense of the word.”



The three-story home incorporates customary cedar shingles and familiar forms, yet the more romantic illusions of the genre are clarified and simplified. The home’s silhouette cuts a striking profile against the sky that seems traditional and contemporary at the same time.

David and Marsha had a vision and brought their ideas to the table. We pushed each other. It was a true collaboration in the best sense of the word.

From the street, the house presents a cordial yet reserved face to the outside world and only gradually reveals itself. Rather than try to hide the garage, the architect opted for a pair of symmetrical sheds; each is crowned with a simple gable roof and enlivened with clinging flowering vines. The sheds flank a wooden pathway that steps up to the entry courtyard and the front door. A sense of restraint is the architectural order.

As in many present-day beach houses, the main floor of the home is hoisted upward to capture views and breezes. An open, nautical-inspired stairway ascends to the loftlike second floor where interiors unfold in gracious continuous living spaces bathed in natural light from floor-to-ceiling windows.

Wooden walkway to house

Coming to the beach is about being in touch with nature, and the design of this house encourages an ongoing dialogue between the inside and the great outdoors with a variety of open-air rooms, each boasting a distinctive personality. A deep second-floor porch running the length of the house embraces the big view from sunrise to sunset. A cloistered screened terrace off the downstairs master suite offers welcome shading at midday.

Coming to the beach is about being in touch with nature, and the design of this house encourages an ongoing dialogue between the inside and the great outdoors with a variety of open-air rooms, each boasting a distinctive personality.

The interiors throughout echo the sophisticated, spartan architecture of the house. Marsha worked closely with Georgina O’Hara and Cheryl Troxel to choose furnishings and accessories that are deliberately subtle and have clean lines. The palette of soft blues, greens, and grays and the textured neutrals interact differently throughout the day, sometimes evoking the warm tones of the wood surfaces and other times mirroring shades of the sand and the sea. The understated character of the design is the perfect backdrop for the Dowlers’ collection of fine art photography.

Inside view of stairs and balcony

Upstairs, the theme continues. The master suite occupies the top floor and takes full advantage of the gable roofline to create a real “wow” factor. A pair of swiveling chairs creates an intimate conversation area, while a trio of double-hung windows offers expansive views of the rolling dunes and the Gulf.

From every vantage point, broad stokes of genius and attention to detail come together in a graceful harmony. The stage is set as Marsha and David put their masterpiece on the market; let the next act in the ongoing narrative of this home begin!

— V —



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