Major Repair Work Gets Underway At Historical Museum

by SC Publisher Shannen Hayes

The Sanibel Historical Museum and Village shares the story of the island from the Calusa and Spanish eras to the early pioneer families who settled here in the 1800s. Nine authentically-restored buildings are a part of telling that story to thousands of visitors each year.

Upkeep of those buildings is mandatory to preserving the island’s story, so urgent structural and safety repairs are being done to four of them – Sanibel School House, Burnap Cottage, Rutland House and Caretaker’s Cottage.

“Maintenance is preservation,” said Museum Executive Director Emilie Alfino. “If we don’t maintain our buildings, we are not preserving them and that is the first part of our mission.”

The pandemic brought projects to a halt, which played a part in the long to-do list. So, structural and safety issues are being addressed first. Rotten wood porches were recently replaced on the Sanibel School House and Burnap Cottage at a cost of $13,500.

Expensive roof repairs to Burnap Cottage and the Rutland House, as well as work to the Caretaker’s Cottage and replacing rotten fascia under the edge of the roof on the School House, are next on the list.

The Caretaker’s Cottage was built after 1925 behind the Mayer family’s bayfront home, Shore Haven. The cottage served as a bath house, annex, caretaker’s cottage and a guest house. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was home to Hannah and Isaiah Gavin while they helped widowed Daisy Mayer with housework and gardening. It was moved into the village in 2012, along with Shore Haven, and serves as an exhibit of Sanibel’s Black history. SC photo by Associate Publisher Chuck Larsen

Vice Mayor Richard Johnson, liaison to the museum and Historical Preservation Committee, said there is “significant deterioration” of the buildings and the items on the list are “clearly safety hazards.”

The city owns the buildings and the 2.5 acres on which the museum has sat since it was founded in 1984. “These are our buildings…,” said Johnson. “I believe we have an obligation to make sure (they) are sustained and maintained.”

The remaining $112,480 of the urgent maintenance and repair costs will be equally shared by the museum and city through an agreement. Council unanimously approved the funds in June, since the projects were not part of the city’s budget this year.

The porch of the Sanibel School House for White Children, circa 1896, was recently replaced. Replacing rotten facia is on the repair list. SC photo by Chuck Larsen

Johnson said he thinks the city has been “under spending on these buildings for a very long time and as a result, we have not been able to take proper care of them and are now seeing some deterioration of these buildings.”

Councilman John Henshaw voiced concern over planning for the museum’s future to avoid unexpected structural and safety costs. “We (need to) incorporate a responsible assessment of what it takes to keep these buildings to where they are at least safe and brought back to an appropriate condition.”

City Manager Dana Souza agreed that evaluations of the museum’s buildings should be done, as well as planning the city’s budget in cooperation with the museum to avoid unplanned costs.

“Our history and heritage is something that once it gets away from us, it’s gone and would be very difficult to get it back,” said Johnson. “I think we are somewhat the envy of other communities that are trying to do this, so we need to make sure we preserve our history.”

The museum and village closes annually from Aug. 1 to mid-October. That is when most of the work will be done, so it doesn’t interfere with visitors’ experience.

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