Janalyn Travis-Messer’s office is full of activity. She’s in the middle of building a house on the Island and as she bustles around her office/exhibition space for local artists, she’s keeping one eye on Nushka, her new, not quite perfectly house-trained puppy.
A guy wearing crusty work boots sticks his head in to say that over at the building site for her new house, “The slab is drying.”
Janalyn is a doer — a builder, a realtor and an organizer. “I hate going clothes shopping but in a hardware store, I’m in heaven,” she said. Her best Christmas present ever? “Nine nail guns and a bucket with layers to organize all of my ratchets.”
When she decided that Shelter Island desperately needed more housing options that didn’t involve a jumbo mortgage, she decided to pick up a hammer and a nail and do something about it. The structure she designed and built is almost ready to be occupied. Unfortunately, not all of her neighbors are happy about it.
Janalyn was born in California and grew up in Hawaii after her parents split and her mother moved the family there in 1965. Janalyn’s mother was an inspiration to her, working at a variety of jobs, including as a realtor to support her family and becoming the first female taxi medallion owner in Hawaii.
Janalyn studied theater arts at the University of Hawaii and in England. Her career in theater was long and varied, from stage productions to rock and roll. She built sets, did sound and lighting for stage and TV and was an extra in an episode of Hawaii Five-0. In 1980, Janalyn left Hawaii for New York, where she became head electrician for the Broadway show “Death Trap.”
Since her first job in a drug store at 16, Janalyn has worked. In addition to her work in the theater, she’s done fabric design, house design, sold advertising for this newspaper and now works in real estate and building homes.
Her general contracting company, DJTM, works with prefabricated homes that are built to her layout and specifications and then shipped to their new address with the plumbing and electrical systems in place. She’s got a fifth one under way now, and the one that is almost completed on Shelter Island will be her third such home on the Island.
Although Janalyn hasn’t lived full-time in Hawaii since 1980, her connections there still bring her back a couple of times a year, connections that include a house and a “Hawaii dog” named Rex, both under the care of friends.
“Hawaii is a fabulous place to live,” she said. “You can go hiking every day, take your dogs to the beach every day, drive legally barefoot, but if you have to get a job, it’s not easy.”
Working in New York and living on Long Island, Janalyn met Jim Messer at a bar in Bellmore when she got to talking with a matchmaking bartender who sized her up as perfect for Jim, a regular. The wingman/barkeep made the introductions and within weeks Jim and Janalyn were a couple. They married in 1983.
A long-time Long Island native, Shelter Island had long been in Jim’s sights, but it was Janalyn who grabbed the real estate ads, drove out to find a house and made it happen. In September of 1985, Janalyn and Jim were on the ferry with the moving truck on the way to their new home on Baldwin Road. Janalyn remembered Jim said, “We’ve got to thank them for letting us move here. We’ve got to give back to this community.”
Over the next 20 years, Jim and Janalyn made good on Jim’s pledge. She was active with the League of Women Voters and the Shelter Island Historical Society and he was elected to two terms on the Town Board.
When Jim was diagnosed with cancer, Janalyn and Jim met with Jim’s oncologist. She interrupted the doctor in the middle of polite introductions. “Look is he dead, or does he have a chance?” she asked.
The doctor said yes, he did have a chance. “Then let’s get started,” Janalyn said.
Jim died in August of 2005, from a series of complications initiated by a tick bite in the middle of his second term on the Town Board and only weeks after the annual Crescent Beach fireworks show he had organized for 11 years at. At that year’s show he was still fundraising, even in a wheelchair. “Jim was only 63 when he died-way too young,” Janalyn said. “I’m very grateful for all those years. He did a lot for Shelter Island.”
Janalyn continued her own volunteer activities and added new ones in honor of Jim, including the Chamber of Commerce, Deer and Tick Committee and for 20 years now the annual Shelter Island Arts and Crafts Fair, a much-anticipated annual event which she organizes, bringing together local artists and people with the wherewithal to buy their work.
Lately her attention and can-do spirit is trained on the lack of affordable housing on Shelter Island. Her work as a real estate professional makes her more aware of the problem than most people and her work as a builder makes her more able than most to actually do something about it.
When six affordable homes were built in the 1990s and six local families moved in, it was the beginning of the town’s only initiative to make homes for working — but not necessarily wealthy — families on Shelter Island.
Janalyn sees that experiment as a success and it encourages her. “Those families are still here,” she said. “Their houses look great. That’s what I’m trying to do when I build this house. The new four-bedroom house is designed to rent to one family, but it could also work for four individuals. I put a super large kitchen in so everyone could have their own cabinets.”
The house should be ready to occupy this spring.
“People are upset by this house going up, but if they think it’s going to be like a mobile home, well, it’s not,” she said. “I’m following the process, a building permit to a C of O [certificate of occupancy] and all the rest. I’m following the guidelines to build a safe house.”
Janalyn’s way of living is to go and do. “I love life. I hate laziness, excuses, not taking responsibility. I won’t give an excuse,” she said. “I’ll do as much as I can.”
What do you always have with you? Right now, it’s Nushka.
Favorite place on Shelter Island? My backyard.
Favorite place not on Shelter Island? Kahala Beach in Hawaii.
When was the last time you were elated? The day I adopted Nushka two months ago. A rainy day, a stinky dog.
What exasperates you? Unkind people.
When was the last time you were afraid? When Reverend Paul Wancura was found.
What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? The day of the Art Show and Craft Fair.
Favorite movie or book? Book — ‘Lord of the Rings.” Movie, — ‘The Wizard of Oz.’
Favorite food? Poi, it’s mashed taro. I like ‘two-finger’ poi, thick enough to eat with two fingers, not as thick as one finger.