Times of the Islands - - News - Jan Holly is a Sanibel-based free­lance writer and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to TOTI Media.

A trea­sured icon, Sanibel’s Community House gets a facelift, mak­ing it an even bet­ter place for community gath­er­ings, cul­tural events and re­cep­tions of all sorts.

The Community House on Sanibel now boasts a fab­u­lous makeover, the first since it was built nearly a cen­tury ago. The fa­cil­ity’s over­all foot­print has only mod­er­ately ex­panded, “but the in­te­rior has un­der­gone a huge trans­for­ma­tion,” says Teresa Riska-Hall, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Sanibel Community As­so­ci­a­tion (SCA), which over­sees House op­er­a­tions. Richard John­son, long­time SCA sup­porter and vice pres­i­dent of its board, calls The Community House an “is­land trea­sure” for both vis­i­tors and res­i­dents. “For almost 100 years, the peo­ple of Sanibel and Cap­tiva have gath­ered at The Community House,” he says. “I en­cour­age ev­ery­one to join with my fam­ily in be­com­ing a sup­port­ing mem­ber of the Sanibel Community As­so­ci­a­tion and keep The Community House tra­di­tion alive for years to come.”

“Let’s start with the new en­trance!” Riska-Hall says, point­ing en­thu­si­as­ti­cally to the con­crete tile pavers form­ing the walk­way and lobby floor. Em­bed­ded with bits of shell and sea glass, the pavers sparkle in the sun. “This floor­ing was made lo­cally and it turned out beau­ti­fully. It’s a big hit with pa­trons.”

Re­tain­ing its “old Florida” look, the main en­trance sports a spa­cious veranda and cov­ered area for pick-ups/drop-offs. Lin­ing the ex­te­rior walls are com­fort­able wicker chairs, tai­lor-made for leisurely con­ver­sa­tion be­fore or af­ter events. Wide doors grace the east and west sides of the struc­ture. “We have easy en­trance from all four di­rec­tions,” the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor notes.

The House’s three prin­ci­pal spa­ces, the Founder’s Room, Community Room and Great Hall, of­fer max­i­mum flex­i­bil­ity for almost any ac­tiv­ity. “We can ac­com­mo­date three events si­mul­ta­ne­ously, or one large event, seat­ing 800 peo­ple,” she says, “and we can con­fig­ure set­tings almost lim­it­lessly—for theater, danc­ing, classes, ban­quets, lec­tures, films or wed­ding re­cep­tions.

“My hus­band and I held our wed­ding re­cep­tion here in 1988,” Riska-Hall re­calls nos­tal­gi­cally. “The Community House was here for us then. It is still here—for [Sanibel and Cap­tiva] is­lan­ders and is­land vis­i­tors. The rea­son for my re­turn to Sanibel was to help The House thrive.” The walls of the lobby and three main rooms are lined with rail­ings and S-hooks to se­cure art ex­hibits. Cus­tom in­su­lated ceil­ings and mov­able acous­tic pan­els, which sep­a­rate the three rooms, make each space sound­proof. “One of our plan­ners tested the sound­proof­ing—by yelling in the Founder’s Room at the top of her lungs,” Riska-Hall re­ports. In­cred­i­bly, in the ad­ja­cent Community Room, she says, “we heard noth­ing at all— just dead si­lence.”

So­phis­ti­cated tech­nol­ogy makes the 447-seat Great Hall the most ver­sa­tile of the three big spa­ces. “The com­plex­ity of our sys­tem posed quite a chal­lenge at first,” ex­plains Lance Lam­bert, one of two tech wizards on staff.

“While learn­ing its in­tri­ca­cies, we were also dis­cov­er­ing its po­ten­tial,” he says. “The Audubon So­ci­ety was the first to uti­lize our equip­ment, so we fig­ured out the pos­si­bil­i­ties to­gether.” Room in­ven­tory in­cludes 12 tracks of down­lights, 10 theater lights and 11 spot­lights. “We can place the spots any­where in the hall and turn them in any di­rec­tion. We can also con­trol the in­ten­sity of the lights in­di­vid­u­ally and ‘paint’ them any color on the spec­trum.”

The au­dio sys­tem en­com­passes the Great Hall and the Community Room, with a to­tal of 13 speak­ers and two sub­woofers. Other tech en­hance­ments in­clude an HDMI out­put, which can con­nect vir­tu­ally any com­puter to The House sys­tem, disc or Blu-ray video/film ca­pa­bil­i­ties, and a USB port. “Users can bring a video on a thumb drive and just plug it in,” Lam­bert says.

The Founder’s Room, which houses 211 peo­ple, is on the His­toric Registry. As The House’s ear­li­est it­er­a­tion, erected in 1927, it has been lov­ingly re­stored for pos­ter­ity. Warm and invit­ing, the space boasts wide, sunny win­dows along the north wall, com­fort­able par­lor seat­ing, and a Stein­way up­right pi­ano, nes­tled in a cor­ner, just wait­ing to be played.

An­chor­ing the space at each end are the room’s two fire­places. Above them hang “sailor’s valen­tines,” oc­tagon­shaped shell art­work that hold in their cen­ters pho­tographs of The Community House, then and now. They are ti­tled “Our House, 1927” and “Your House, 2017.”

Some of The House’s orig­i­nal pinewood floor­ing was re­pur­posed for the Founder’s Room as side ta­bles, cab­i­netry and man­tel­pieces. Long wooden ban­ners, bear­ing names of donors con­tribut­ing $1,000 or more to the ren­o­va­tion, will be sus­pended from the ceil­ing’s ex­posed beams. When fin­ished, the ban­ners will en­cir­cle the room. “We owe th­ese donors so much,” Riska-Hall says.

The rus­tic beamed ceil­ing of the Founder’s Room is repli­cated in the Community Room. It seats 171 and con­nects, via a wide pass-through and counter, to the kitchen. The passthrough makes the en­tire length of the kitchen vis­i­ble to the room’s oc­cu­pants. “This space is the hub of our ne w Culi­nary Ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram,” says Bill Sar­toris, SCA board pres­i­dent. “We dou­bled the kitchen’s size and de­signed it for teach­ing.”

Cam­eras in the kitchen, in­stalled at strate­gic an­gles for easy view­ing, are con­nected to mon­i­tors in the Community Room. The en­hanced video tech­nol­ogy makes cook­ing demon­stra­tions pos­si­ble for dozens of at­ten­dees. “Ev­ery­body in the Community Room can see the ac­tion in the kitchen,” he ex­plains. Classes held in the kitchen’s in­te­rior can ac­com­mo­date 20 stu­dents, “with room to spare,” Sar­toris says. “No stu­dent is left be­hind.”

The 1,000-square-foot kitchen can be di­vided into three dis­crete cook­ing sta­tions. “It can han­dle food ser­vice for the Founder’s Room, the Community Room and the Great Hall si­mul­ta­ne­ously,” says Jarred Har­ris, who heads the Culi­nary Ed­u­ca­tion ini­tia­tive. “Even with a 30-mem­ber wait staff, traf­fic flow is easy.”

Har­ris brings to his po­si­tion a strong back­ground in culi­nary en­ter­prise. He owned pubs in Eng­land for many years and, on


Sanibel, he was chef for the This­tle Lodge restaurant and The Sanc­tu­ary Golf Club. “Jarred loves teach­ing as much as he loves food,” Sar­toris re­ports, “and he loves shar­ing his culi­nary cre­ativ­ity. He shows peo­ple that cook­ing can be easy and fun.”

Har­ris has strong opin­ions about food. “Any pre­pared food is bad,” he says. “Eat only or­ganic foods, farm-to-ta­ble, and prefer­ably from your own back­yard. I can show you how to grow salad for the en­tire sum­mer with just two pots.”

True to his phi­los­o­phy, Har­ris has planted an op­u­lent or­ganic gar­den on The House’s prop­erty. Grow­ing un­ob­tru­sively among the palms, tabebuia, coon­tie and but­ton­wood are such mouth­wa­ter­ing del­i­ca­cies as egg­plant, sour­sop, mango, su­gar ap­ple, pineapple, ma­cadamia nuts, thorn­less black­ber­ries, heir­loom toma­toes, kaf­fir lime and av­o­cado.

“We even have a bee­hive,” Har­ris says. “Bees pol­li­nate every­thing. They hit 2.5 mil­lion plants to make just one pound of honey. Our small hive houses thou­sands of bees.” The House sells honey from its flour­ish­ing hive, along with mango chut­ney. More delectable food items will be of­fered for sale as the gar­den con­tin­ues to grow.

The Community House has big plans for en­ter­tain­ing is­lan­ders and vis­i­tors this sea­son:

Wines One, an in­tro­duc­tory class led by wine con­nois­seur Tom Uhler, is back by pop­u­lar de­mand. The class is lim­ited to 30 stu­dents. “It sold out last year,” Riska-Hall says, “but we want to keep it small—to give at­ten­dees a more en­rich­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.” The class meets 7 to 9 p.m., Nov. 3, 10 and 17.

On Thanks­giv­ing week­end, ap­prox­i­mately 70 artists dis­play their wares at the “Sanibel Mas­ter’s” Art Fes­ti­val, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday, Nov. 24, and Satur­day, Nov. 25. The event also fea­tures live entertainment, in­clud­ing a per­for­mance by the BIG ARTS Community Cho­rus.


Cre­ative Theater Work­shop launches its pro­duc­tion of Elf Jr., with seven per­for­mances be­tween Nov. 30 and Dec 5. The mu­si­cal fea­tures lo­cal chil­dren ages 7 to 18. “Last year they did

The Jun­gle Book. It was a big hit,” Riska-Hall says. “We ex­pect this pro­duc­tion to be equally suc­cess­ful.”

For fam­ily fun dur­ing the Christ­mas hol­i­days, try the 22nd an­nual Mini-Golf Tour­na­ment, played on a nine-hole in­door minia­ture golf course, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tues­day, Dec. 26, through Friday, Dec. 29. “I love this event be­cause it is in­ter­gen­er­a­tional,” notes Riska-Hall. “Grand­par­ents bring tod­dlers. Large fam­ily groups show up to­gether and com­pete. Ev­ery­body loves it.”

Among Sar­toris’ fa­vorite House ac­tiv­i­ties are the potluck din­ners at 6 p.m. on the fourth Wed­nes­day of each month. The evening fea­tures food prepa­ra­tion demon­stra­tions or speak­ers dis­cussing timely is­land-re­lated top­ics. At­ten­dees are asked to bring a dish that feeds six.

“We are ex­cited about the pop­u­lar­ity of th­ese gath­er­ings,” Sar­toris says. “Our first potluck at­tracted 20 peo­ple. At our most re­cent event, 80 came to our door, potluck dishes in hand.”

Gulf­shore Opera of­fers a “Clas­sic Cabaret” at 7:30 p.m., Mon­day, Jan. 22. The event com­bines a pop­u­lar song con­cert with ca­sual so­cial­iz­ing. Stephanie Pearce, the en­sem­ble’s direc­tor, calls The House “a fan­tas­tic venue. It of­fers the flex­i­bil­ity we need to present a su­perla­tive per­for­mance with a jazz club feel.”

The House flings wide its doors (and grounds) for the 81st an­nual Shell Fes­ti­val on Thurs­day, March 1 through Satur­day, March 3. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thurs­day and Friday; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Satur­day. It’s a co­op­er­a­tive en­deavor be­tween The House’s Shell Crafters Club, The Bai­ley-Matthews Na­tional Shell Mu­seum and the Sanibel-Cap­tiva Shell Club. Fea­tured are juried sci­en­tific/artis­tic ex­hibits, and art­work, jew­elry and floral ar­range­ments are for sale. “It is to­tal im­mer­sion in the world of shells,” Sar­toris says.

Re­flect­ing on SCA’s re­newal ef­forts of the past year, Sar­toris muses: “We are the nicest place on Sanibel now. The Community House has served is­lan­ders for the past 90 years. With our ren­o­va­tion com­plete, we are con­fi­dent that it will con­tinue to serve for the next 90 years—and be­yond.”

For more in­for­ma­tion, visit sani­bel­com­mu­ni­ty­ or call 239-472-2155.


The Community House’s main en­trance has a cov­ered area for pick-ups and drop-offs.

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