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Times of the Islands Magazine

Sanibel Community House: Transformation complete, come join the fun

The Community House’s main entrance has a covered area for pick-ups and drop-offs. Photo by Daniela E. Jaeger.

Photo by Jonathan Tongyai.
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.”

Photo by Jonathan Tongyai.


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,” octagon-shaped 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 pass-through makes the entire length of the kitchen visible to the room’s occupants. “This space is the hub of our new 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.

Photo by Jonathan Tongyai.


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 or call 239-472-2155.

Membership Information

The Community House, voted “2017’s Best of the Islands: Event Facility”—an award conferred by the Islander newspaper—is operated as a private, nonprofit (501c3) organization. The Sanibel Community Association supports The House’s activities solely via donations, event and rental fees, and membership dues. Any islander or island business or civic organization can contribute to its mission by becoming a member.

Members are entitled to reduced rates for SCA-sponsored events. Annual membership fees are $50 for an individual, $100 for a family, $150 for a business or civic organization, and $1,000 for a patron.

2173 Periwinkle Way
Sanibel, Florida  33957


Written by Jan Holly, a Sanibel-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to TOTI Media.