The life of Hal Sorrenti

A Canadian-born architectural designer who eventually emigrated to Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras, Hal Sorrenti was passionate, witty, and singularly creative.

Sorrenti’s life experiences led him to an ethos of simplicity, and his sense of vision helped him create a legacy which was impactful — both in the communities where he lived, as well as through his prolific style of design.

Hal Sorrenti’s childhood and family’s experiences shaped his perspective and inspired his future achievements.

Hal Sorrenti was born on October 2nd, 1947, in Saint Thomas, a small town in southern Ontario, Canada.

Fortunate to have a close-knit family, he was the youngest of three brothers, with Vince being the middle child and Jim the eldest. His father, Louis James Sorrenti, served in the Canadian Air Force during World War II and later worked as a car salesperson, while his mother, Mary Catherine Sorrenti, was a schoolteacher.

During Hal’s childhood, the Sorrenti family moved around Ontario, living in several different towns. From 1947 to 1949, the family lived between Port Stanley, where Hal’s grandparents lived, and Seaforth. They spent the years from 1950 to 1955 in Windsor, after which they resided  in Tillonsburg until 1961. Despite the family’s modest means, they managed to take some memorable trips, including a vacation to Florida in their Oldsmobile Fiesta station wagon and a journey to Saskatchewan by train.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck the Sorrenti family on November 11, 1959, when Hal’s father passed away suddenly. Hal was only 12 years old at the time. The family moved to St. Thomas, Ontario in 1961, and several years later, Vince also passed away.

Despite these early losses, Hal remained very close to his mother and eldest brother, Jim, throughout the rest of his life.

Watermarked images Courtesy of Elgin County Archives (item numbers: 66925 & 48677).

Hal Sorrenti’s young adulthood was defined by his entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and determination to pursue his passions. 

From September 1965 to May 1968, Sorrenti attended the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, working summers in Vancouver and Alberta. One of the highlights of this period was attending Expo 67 in Montreal with his friends. In the summer of 1968, Hal took a trip to Saskatoon, and stayed to attend the University of Saskatchewan for the fall semester of that year.

Then, taking a respite from his education, in 1969 Hal ventured into business, becoming partners with his brother Jim in a Pacific 66 service station in Saskatoon, which they transformed into a rental car company called Rentabug.  The business quickly expanded and became a successful international franchise. Hal moved to Calgary in 1971 and then Toronto in 1973, as Rentabug offices opened in these cities, while Jim relocated to Illinois when the business expanded into the USA. The Sorrenti brothers’ involvement with Rentabug, which had provided them with invaluable practical education in business, concluded in 1975.

Throughout these adventures, Hal Sorrenti never lost sight of his passion for the arts. In Toronto, he pursued sculpture by taking an evening course, and began to search for an affordable industrial space that he could use as both a creative studio and residence. He eventually found the perfect space — an old fish shanty in Port Stanley, the small town in southern Ontario where his grandmother lived.  Hal arranged to rent the upper floor of the Eastside Fish Company building and moved in on April 1, 1975.  He then began to immerse himself in the creative possibilities of his new locale.

Sorrenti returned to the University of Western Ontario for the 1975 summer semester to complete his degree, commuting by bicycle to the “Fish House” (as it became known) in Port Stanley on the weekends. He graduated with a B.A. in Economics, with minors in Business, English, and Visual Art.

Hal Sorrenti's Life - the Carlton Group

Hal Sorrenti’s auspicious introduction into architectural design set the stage for future success in his career. 

In late 1975, after completing his degree, Sorrenti became employed as General Manager for the Carlton Group — a real estate development and management company in London, Ontario.

When given the opportunity to contribute to the design of a new high-rise apartment complex being developed by the company, Hal impressed his employer with his innovative ideas and design solutions which maximized living spaces. Incorporating Sorrenti’s designs, The Discovery was completed in 1976, and The Pioneer was built in 1978. The project won a Canadian Design Award and was later recognized by Canadian Building Magazine as one of the top five projects in Canada (see article).

I saw an opportunity. [So] I went out, bought a pad of graph paper, a carton of cigarettes, a pound of coffee and over the weekend I produced apartment concepts that I personally would like to live in.

Sorrenti’s second design project for Carlton involved the renovation of old commercial buildings on Dundas Street in downtown London, converting vacant upper levels into residential units. Called the Left Bank, the project was completed in December 1977 and won the Ontario Renews Award in 1981. It was later used as a model for the Ontario government’s initiatives program, Convert to Rent.

Sorrenti remained with the Carlton Group until the end of 1981, with his interior and exterior design concepts consistently adding value to all projects completed during his tenure.

Hal Sorrenti’s inspiration and dedication over two decades came to shape the aesthetic and future of a community.

In the early years of living in this quiet fishing village on the North shore of Lake Erie, Hal Sorrenti became captivated by it’s rich history and architecture. He was particularly drawn to the neglected and endangered buildings in the area and became determined to restore and rejuvenate them. Inspired by his grandmother’s scrapbook, which was filled with stories, photos, and clippings about the town, Hal saw the potential for a restored Port Stanley.

Still commuting to London, Hal dabbled in sculpture and painting in his spare time, but his passion for Port Stanley’s architecture consumed him. In 1977, he requested the formation of a Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee from the town council, and his request was granted. Hal became a co-chairperson and began his endeavor to preserve and restore the town’s architectural treasures, starting with the purchase and restoration of two buildings on Main Street.

In 1978, Hal joined the Port Stanley Business Association and founded the annual summer festival CALIPSO (Come And Live In Port Stanley Ontario). The festival brought a steel drum band in from Toronto to play, and it quickly became a beloved tradition in the town.

In the years following, Hal Sorrenti continued to purchase and renovate historic properties on Main Street, opening them as restaurants, shops, and inns.

As a testament to his commitment to Port Stanley and its development, Hal took on the role of chairman for the steering committee of a C.A.U.S.E. (Community Assist for an Urban Study Effort) study focused on urban planning for the town (see article), subsequently developing a master plan for the beach (see article).

Then, together with Jim, Hal formed the Port Stanley Development Company in 1986, purchasing and starting the development of a significant land parcel which included beach, hillside, and hilltop.

In 1987, Hal moved into “Windswept”, a unique three-story residence he had renovated on Main Street. Also using the property as a studio/office, it was infused with his own style and personality. Hal planted his first garden on the slope in front of the house, and his bedroom was later featured on the cover of Ontario Living magazine (see article).

That year he also designed the Newport Beach Condominiums, a 21-unit condo project for a London developer to which Hal and Jim had sold a piece of the beachfront.  Located on the north shore of Lake Erie near the mouth of Kettle Creek, the condos were specifically designed to optimize views of the lake to the south of the development, and they have since become a defining feature of the lakefront.

Hal’s dedication and tireless efforts were undoubtedly a resounding success. His work in Port Stanley contributed to its current recognition as one of the top communities for retirement in Canada.

I developed a vision of restoring and revitalizing the village to an upscale tourist destination.
—Hal Sorrenti
Hal Sorrenti - Port Stanley

Young Painter sees much potential in port as an artistic community

— St. Thomas Times-Journal, July 1975 (Courtesy of Elgin County Archives)

Hal Sorrenti - Port Stanley

Hal Sorrenti to chair Fanshawe advisory group

— St. Thomas Times-Journal, July 1976 (Courtesy of Elgin County Archives)

Hal Sorrenti’s curiousity and creative mind continually motivated him to explore new ideas and possibilities. 

Not content to limit himself to just one area of interest or business, Sorrenti was involved in several other ventures while concurrently pursuing his achievements with the Carlton Group and in Port Stanley. Of these, the most notable were undertaken in collaboration with his brother, Jim.

In 1979, Hal, along with Jim and their cousin Jordan, ventured into the restaurant business by opening Sorrenti’s, a 90-seat restaurant housed in a restored heritage building on Richmond Street in London. The restaurant enjoyed great success (read review) and became known as the “Legendary Sorrenti’s”, even after they sold their stakes in the business in 1984.

Possessing a particular genius for new business ideas, Hal conceived the Kettle Creek Clothing Company (KCC), recruiting Jim and his then-partner to bring his vision to life. They opened the first KCC store in Port Stanley in 1979, and within a few years the business had become a popular Canadian apparel brand. Hal remained involved designing storefronts and merchandising until Jim sold his shares in the mid-1980’s.

Following this, Sorrenti narrowed his focus to two main endeavors – Port Stanley and his vocation in architectural design.  He continued his restoration efforts along the harbor in Port Stanley until 1993, while at the same time transitioning into a full-time architectural designer (see article), taking on projects in London, St. Thomas, and Port Stanley.

Hal Sorrenti's Later Life

Hal Sorrenti’s later years were defined by a simple Caribbean lifestyle and the perfection of his architectural style through elegantly natural designs.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Hal Sorrenti had embarked on various tropical trips, including visits to Jamaica, Key West, Thailand, and Bali. As time progressed, despite his success in Canada, he began to experience an increasing desire for the sort of lifestyle which could only be had abroad.

When he was offered the opportunity to renovate the Windjammer Landing resort in St. Lucia in 1992, he agreed without hesitation, commuting there monthly for the following two years. This led to another international project — this time designing a house for a London client on the island of Roatan in the Bay Islands of Honduras — which he began in June of 1994.

The particular allure and charm of this small Western Caribbean island was not lost on Hal. Roatan’s rolling green hills, aquamarine waters, and friendly people gave Sorrenti a sense of home.  A mere 8 months after his first trip, he opened an office there, taking up two rooms in the old Roatan Yacht Club hotel, commuting between Roatan and Canada for the following 10 years.

By 2005 Sorrenti was living on Roatan full-time.  While he would come to design properties in many of the island’s most exclusive locales, for himself, he chose to work and dwell in a modest second-floor space in the island’s municipal centre, Coxen Hole. Hal loved the bustling energy of the town. Continuing to reside in Coxen Hole for the remainder of his life, Sorrenti embodied a spirit of lighthearted simplicity, becoming content with few possessions and adopting some of the traditional ways of life from his local community.

I have learned from the [Roatan] locals in that you can be happy with less. That we don’t need what we have in the developed world. I am practicing that by living it here and I like it.

Still focusing primarily on projects through the Bay Islands and on the mainland of Honduras, Sorrenti also opened an office in Granada, Nicaragua.  His work on a master plan of 186 acres on Roatan led to an offer to consult on a project in Nicaragua owned by International Living, which eventually led to him being a guest speaker at International Living conferences in Central America. Hal lectured on the topic of designing to live in the tropics.  

Hal Sorrenti commuted between his two Central American offices while also doing work in Panama, Manhattan, Hilton Head Island, Port Stanley, the USVI, and Turks and Caicos.

As with Port Stanley, Hal had a specific vision for the development of Roatan, endeavoring to uphold its “sense of place” through the preservation of the island’s conventional Caribbean style, as well as the integration of his designs with the natural landscape. Harmoniously unifying indoor and outdoor experiences, Sorrenti’s houses were not only elegant from a design standpoint, but also helped define a quintessential island lifestyle on Roatan.

Sorrenti's Serenity

— Bay Islands Voice, May 2005

"The best of what exists architecturally on Roatan has been built in the last fifteen years or is being built today and probably tomorrow. Such designers as Roatan’s own Canadian transplant, Hal Sorrenti, have bestowed the island with an architectural vernacular that is so natural, so unpretentious, so appropriate to island living, it would seem to have been here for centuries, not a mere decade."

At the age of 73, after suffering a stroke at his home a few weeks prior, Hal Sorrenti passed away on Roatan on November 1, 2020. His final wish honored, he was laid to rest at sea in a small ceremony of close friends. 

Having lived a simultaneously simple and extraordinary life, Hal Sorrenti left his mark on the hearts he touched, and a legacy of over one hundred homes he designed in Canada, across in the Bay Islands of Honduras, and across the Caribbean and Central America.

Celebrating the life of Hal Sorrenti

You insisted on living in the center
right in the middle of it all
Scribbling on napkins
spaces that were made of dreams
Listening and watching always
a master observer
Every design included alcoves
and gathering spaces
Always searching for the tipping point
between community and singularity
I see you evergreen in khaki shorts, white shirt and messenger bag
casually slung around your middle
I loved your sense of humor and nuance
It only took a glance and a lopsided smile and we could share a private critique
across the room
You were a rainmaker
Always connecting this one person you knew to a job or a resource
Finding something good about every person you encountered
That is why in your last days you were surrounded by the very same people that greeted you
every day when you walked down the street
The same people that called you "Mr. Hal"
They knew you chose to live among them
A privilege that people with passports have
And chosen you have
This chosen life of yours
Tonight I light a candle for your brilliant spirit, my friend
In reverence and in love
Love, Berna

Online obituaries

‘Designed by notable Hal Sorrenti’

— Eric Bunnell, St. Thomas Times-Journal, November 2020

Obituary - Hal Sorrenti

— Laura Burden, North Shore Beacon, November 2020