It’s safe to say South Florida would have a very different look if Jonathan Seymour had never worked his magic on it.
The landscape architect created buildings and outdoor spaces that became some of the area’s most iconic — and beautiful — images: The Country Club of Miami, Coral Gables’ Miracle Mile, the University of Miami Student Union, the Dade County Jail and Criminal Courts building and a large portion of the Julia Tuttle Causeway are just a few highlights of his portfolio.
Seymour died at his home in Jacksonville Tuesday morning, just 10 days after celebrating his 94th birthday. He had congestive heart failure and was receiving hospice care.
He lived in Miami from 1948 until 1992 with his wife, Elizabeth, who is an artist and also worked as his office manager for more than 40 years.
The couple, who were married for 67 years, met as undergraduates at the University of Georgia, where Jonathan majored in landscape architecture. They were introduced through one of his Sigma Nu fraternity brothers.
Before graduating from UGA, Jonathan served in the U.S. Army during World War II and was stationed in India. He was able to utilize his artistic personality even then, designing decoys out of balsa wood and fabric.
As Coral Gables’ landscape architect, he helped to transform the city from 1950 to 1956. At that time, he designed the Alhambra Circle entrance, and other entrances and street plantings in the city. He introduced wide sidewalks and ground covers to Miracle Mile.
“He moved in on Miracle Mile when it really needed help, and he really gussied it up,” said Paul George, a Miami historian and professor at Miami Dade College. “It’s become a very noteworthy street, with many upscale businesses. . . . I would hold him partially responsible for the renaissance of that street.”
Seymour opened his professional office in Miami in 1956. Although he designed well-known commercial properties, he was best known for residential projects, often for high-profile clients, including the DuPont and Wackenhut families. In particular, he was recognized for designing unusually-shaped swimming pools that incorporated elements of nature in the 1960s, when many designers were sticking to rectangular shapes.
He often designed in the style of the English garden, but had a diverse portfolio. Most of all, he loved elements of surprise and valued the individual experience of moving through an environment.
The Miami Herald wrote about Seymour’s work in 1984, stating that “his style epitomizes the image of the Florida garden, but it is not preconceived, for every situation is different.”
Seymour spoke out against absolute symmetry in the article, saying, “We live casual lives. Why should our gardens be any different?”
Elizabeth Seymour described her husband as “upbeat, and just a nice guy.”
He was so dedicated to his work, she said, that it was both a profession and a hobby. “He often said, ‘If I hadn’t loved what I was doing so much, I probably should have charged people more.’
“He just enjoyed helping people beautify their properties,” she said.
The couple moved from Miami to Atlanta in 1992 to “retire,” but Jonathan continued to take clients.
Jonathan’s children remember him as a gentle soul — a family man who tended to be introverted and uncomfortable with self-promotion.
“He liked the work to be appreciated for itself and speak for itself. He didn’t want to prove himself by connections or anything else. He wanted people to like and recommend,” said his son, Jonathan Seymour Jr.
The architect would sometimes take his children to work sites; it was during one of these excursions that his daughter, Susan, realized she wanted to be an interior designer.
Susan Seymour fondly recalled a time when she attended a party at her father’s client’s home. Guests marveled at the landscaping and water features, which Susan knew her father had designed. But she never told the guests the designs weren’t nature-made, because she knew her father would want it that way.
“I know he would not have wanted me to say, ‘My father designed this,’ and to break that spell when you come across natural beauty,” she said.
There will be a memorial service for Jonathan Seymour at 11 a.m. Saturday at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra.
In addition to his wife, son Jonathan and daughter Susan, Seymour is survived by daughters Laura Seymour, Jody Smith and Judy Mancuso.
A collection of Seymour’s work can be seen at the University of Florida’s George A. Smathers libraries.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to The Jonathan Grover Seymour Program Support Fund, Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra or The Jonathan and Elizabeth Seymour Scholarship at the University of Florida.