The Houses of Windsor

Rarely has a "planned" community been planned as wisely or with such thoughtful attention to everything—from its residential architecture to its jasmine-walled tennis courts—as Windsor, Florida.

In architecture, as in so many things, the American experience has always been a delicate balance between a desire for innovation and freedom of expression and the need for a firm connection with the past. For the last four decades, this balance has been particularly visible in the proliferation of the planned community, that uniquely American concept of customizing and building whole towns from scratch. While many of these have succeeded, rarely have invention and tradition been more gracefully combined than in Windsor, Florida.

Set on a barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and Indian River lagoon, about eight miles north of Vero Beach and 90 minutes north of West Palm Beach, Windsor is the brainchild of Canadians Hilary and Galen Weston. When the couple purchased the 416-acre property back in the late eighties, they set out to create a seaside community with luxury homes of architectural distinction and state-of-the-art facilities for sports—including not just golf and tennis but riding and polo as well—all set within a traditional town framework, with everything in walking distance. Privacy, serenity, and a sense of neighborhood were key. The results testify to their impeccable taste and unwavering vision.

"The Westons really stuck by their original dream of what Windsor would be," says resident Janie Zecher.

To help them, they brought in award-winning architects and town planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a husband-and-wife team who'd previously collaborated on Seaside, a development of Victorian-style houses on Florida's west coast. Others from the Seaside team who worked on Windsor were architects Scott Merrill and his partner, George Pastor.

The sports facilities, too, were conceived by the best in the business. Robert Trent Jones Jr. designed the 18-hole championship links-style golf course, which has beautifully manicured fairways, fast greens, and no tee times. Wimbledon legend Stan Smith planned the tennis center, with eight Har-Tru courts separated by "walls" of jasmine. (Dress code is the traditional all-whites.)

The coordination of all these talents—and resulting integrity and harmony of the village—can be traced to intensive design meetings in which everyone took part.

Respecting the locale's geography and history while taking the subtropical climate into account, the planners drew inspiration from the side-yard home designs of Charleston, South Carolina, and the Ximenez-Fatio house in St. Augustine, a city whose architectural history is layered in both Spanish and English influences.

"The Ximenez-Fatio house was the starting point for the concept of the homes at Windsor," says Scott Merrill. "It's the perfect example of courtyard living. The main and secondary wings are connected to the house by a wall, forming a private courtyard enclosure." Windsor's courtyards, loggias, balconies, and deep porches, so characteristic of Charleston, afford both complete privacy and comfortable open-air living in classic Florida style.

Unlike the typical rambling and reclusive style of luxury homes, those at Windsor are more intimately scaled and built close together to create the feeling of a real neighborhood. Though the wood and stucco houses (priced from $850,000 to more than $5 million) come in a variety of designs, their neoclassical style, subtle architectural detail, and subdued color palette create a pleasing sense of unity. The zoning here is strict to maintain a sense of continuity throughout the community, while still accommodating individual tastes.

Visitors and residents alike frequently comment on the familiarity and warmth of Windsor's architecture, which evokes places as diverse as Savannah, Martha's Vineyard, and the plantations of Jamaica. Perhaps this is because, in the layout of its streets and the placement of its buildings, Windsor echoes the early European models that informed America's collective memory of "home"—and served as our basic town blueprint for a good 400 years. As in these traditional towns, Windsor's residential streets radiate from a central square, which functions as the business and social nexus of the village. The houses are built flush with the street; streets are varied in width and designed primarily for pedestrian traffic.

For Merrill, Windsor's appeal and architectural importance have less to do with its style than with its variety in public and private spaces. In a typical town the streets must be at least 60 feet wide, and houses must be set back from them at least 25 feet, which tends to encourage a sameness of street size and a dull repetition of spatial patterns. But when Windsor was in the planning stage, the designers applied for variances to allow for some narrower streets, with houses built right up to the property line. As a result, the town has an open feel; one space plays off another, creating a pleasing visual rhythm.

In Windsor, all roads lead to the village center. "On my trips through Europe," Merrill explains, "I'd come across little towns and villages where I'd walk down an alleyway and suddenly come to a big market square. That's the experience you have here."

When planning the town center, which is about the size of a square city block, the goal was to make it look as if several architects had contributed to its construction over time in the same way that our older towns emerged: not all of a piece, in the style of a single period, but in different styles over decades. Windsor's neoclassical post office, for instance, has a charming, old-fashioned feel and huge paned windows. With its familiar temple columns, the design recalls the early-19th-century craze for Greek Revival-style banks, museums, and other civic structures that erupted across the American landscape. (So ubiquitous did they become that in 1846, when the furor had begun to die down, landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing was moved to exclaim: "The Greek temple disease has passed its crisis. The people have survived it.")

The center also includes the Village Store, which carries everything from fine wine to gourmet prepared food, a town meeting hall that doubles as a church, and a fitness center adorned with a clock tower. A grand exedra opens onto a grassy amphitheater, where jazz concerts are occasionally held. Placed between the public buildings are lawns and formal flower gardens.

But even more impressive than Windsor's architecture, its luxurious amenities, and its picturesque setting is the way these elements combine to create a genuine sense of community.

For Windsor resident Nicky Johnson, a perfect day begins with a morning walk with her dog to the Village Store for cappuccino and a chat with friends. After a set of tennis or a round of golf, followed by a leisurely lunch somewhere, it's back home to put in a couple of hours of office work. In late afternoon, she heads over to the driving range, where she'll meet with another group of friends to hit some balls and socialize before ending the day with dinner at the popular beach club restaurant.

Carole and Bob Tiemeyer's morning visits to the post office to collect their mail often lead to lunch with friends—one reason that they are so fond of the village center. Unlike most Windsor members, who stay here just for the season, the Tiemeyers are year-round residents. And they're also avid tennis players.

"Windsor has the best tennis courts anywhere," Carole says enthusiastically. "You are never aware of how many there are, because the dividing walls are covered with Confederate jasmine, which not only smells pretty but makes a great windbreak. It feels as if you are playing on a private court."

For Janie Zecher and her husband, Pete, who are seasonal residents from a busy New Jersey suburb, one of the best things about Windsor is that everything is so accessible.

"It's such a treat to come here, because you never have to drive," says Janie. "It makes life so much easier." Although garages are provided, most members find little need for cars, since most destinations are only a short walk away. Otherwise, bicycles and golf carts are the preferred methods of transportation.

As Florida becomes increasingly urbanized, Windsor's small-town ambience and unhurried pace seem almost otherworldly by contrast. It is easy to understand why this resort attracts members from all over the world.

"It's a very international, eclectic crowd here," says Nicky Johnson. "And that is a definite asset, because each person has his or her own special interests to add to the mix, so there's always a lot to talk about."

Newcomers are charmed by the little idiosyncrasies that define the character of the place. A passel of dogs riding in a family's golf cart, for instance. Or a horse and rider trotting along a residential street. Or, if they happen to be on the fourth hole of the golf course at the right moment, the arresting vision of a mating dance performed by sandhill cranes—one of many varieties of birds that flock to the national wildlife refuge on neighboring Pelican Island.

Windsor is an unusually friendly place; the words "warm" and "welcoming" keep coming up whenever one of the 300 residents describe its virtues. In winter, when the town's population is at its peak, sales director Betsy Hanley holds monthly cocktail parties where homeowners and their guests get a chance to meet incoming members and catch up with old friends. At the dining rooms and restaurants, the residents know all the staff by name. And at outdoor concerts, such as the recent one that featured a Tommy Dorsey-style big band, the amphitheater will suddenly become a ballroom for children, teenagers, parents, and grandparents alike.

During the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter school holidays, Windsor becomes a paradise for kids—even those who don't get a private tour of the island in Michael Davies' helicopter, as his visiting grandchildren do. For the under-ten set, there's a camp that holds art classes and sporting events. On warm days, kids congregate at swimming pools at each other's houses or at the beach club. Last Christmas break, the Windsor management put up a fake ice rink in front of the fitness center—and even provided the children with skates.

This kind of thoughtfulness is just another example of the Windsor formula for mixing innovation with tradition—and coming up with perfection.

Martha Baker wrote The Outdoor Living Room (Clarkson Potter).