Reclusive artist buys up historic US sites to 'put my brush on them'
To the Mattabesec Indians who used to populate the coast of western Connecticut before the Europeans arrived, they were known as "the beautiful sea rocks". The archipelago of small islands in Stony Creek in Long Island Sound are homes to migrating seals and sea birds; some of the islands are no bigger than ledges lapped by the waves.
Over the past few years today's residents of the Thimble Islands, as they are now called, have noticed a mysterious pattern. One after another, the larger and more habitable of the islands are being bought up by the same person - Christine Svenningsen to be exact, a painter who keeps a very low profile and only occasionally displays her work in local galleries. Last week she bought what is thought to have been at least her 10th island in the creek, paying $2.7m for it and raising her overall spending on the islands to about $33m.The first of the islands owned by the Svenningsens, West Crib, was bought by her husband, John, in the 1970s. He made a fortune selling party goods such as balloons, streamers and hats, building his business into one of the largest such trades in the world.
It was after he died in 1997 that his widow began buying up more of the islands. Mrs Svenningsen, who is listed in the local council directory as the second most wealthy concern in Branford after the Connecticut Light and Power Company, is thought today to own almost half of the 23 habitable islands in the chain. The grandest of her possessions is the 7.8-acre Rogers Island which she bought in 2003 for $23.5m, that sports a 27-room mock-Tudor mansion with tennis and basketball courts.
Tom Thumb, billed at circuses before his death in 1883 as the world's smallest man at 3ft 4in, is one of several historic characters to have peopled the Thimble Islands. Captain Kidd, the pirate, dropped anchor here and possibly buried his treasure too, say locals.
President William Taft established a "summer White House" on one of the islands in the 1900s, while granite from Bear Island was used to build the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York.
Mrs Svenningsen is extremely media-shy and gave what she described as her only interview to the Associated Press. She told the agency she is motivated to buy the islands partly to preserve the way of life they represent. She said she wanted to protect them from condominium developers, referring disparagingly by comparison to the Long Island - a playground for the wealthy.
"It's not the Hamptons and I don't think any one wants it to become the Hamptons. I think we all like it the way it is, a little slower pace of life."
She said her island possessions were like "little pieces of art. I get to put my brush to them."
She was speaking partly literally. She has renovated several houses on the islands, painting the furniture with bright fishes and seascapes. She also creates fragrant gardens, including a lily garden. "You can smell it before you get to the dock with your boat," she told Associated Press.
One Woman Buys Ten Private Islands
Conn. Widow Buys Islands Off L.I. Sound
BRANFORD, Conn. -- Some people collect stamps. Christine Svenningsen collects small islands.
The widow, whose private ways and extravagant tastes in real estate have tongues wagging along Connecticut's coast, has spent about $33 million in recent years to buy 10 of the Thimble Islands in Long Island Sound.
The secluded islands, known by the Mattabesec Indians as "the beautiful sea rocks," have attracted legends and luminaries for generations. Circus star Tom Thumb found love on the islands, and treasure hunters have combed them for Captain Kidd's buried riches.
Svenningsen's buying spree has created something of a mystery.
"It's like a movie," said Valerie Wiel, who owns a market on the mainland town of Branford, of which the islands are a part. "Is she going to buy the whole town? The town has been pretty much the same for a long time. To me this points to more change than people would be comfortable with."
Svenningsen, the middle-aged widow of a party goods magnate, bought her latest island last week for $2.7 million and has her eye on another one. She also typically buys the few houses on the islands.
"There's no master plan," Svenningsen said in what she called her first and only interview. "They're like little pieces of art. I get to put my brush to them."
An artist, she is renovating many of the historic homes and paints the furniture with bright fish and other nautical themes. She fills her islands with colorful gardens, including one with lillies.
"You can smell it before you get to the dock with your boat," she said.
Of the hundreds of Thimble Islands, about 25 are considered habitable. They are all within three miles of the coastline and are reachable only by boat. Tour boats have taken sightseers among the islands for generations. The islands were named long ago for thimbleberries, or black raspberries, which once grew wild there.
Houses on the islands have long been used for social gatherings for the rich and famous as well as for summer vacations for families of modest means. President William H. Taft and actor James Earl Jones were among the visitors, while "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau and his wife, newscaster Jane Pauley, own an island home.
Svenningsen's late husband, John, bought a home on the islands in the late 1970s. After he died in 1997, she began to buy up more of the islands.
She bought the house where Tom Thumb courted "Miss Emily." Local legend has it that his boss, P.T. Barnum, ordered Thumb instead to marry "Miss Lavinia," another of his performers. He obeyed, marrying her in 1863.
Tom and Emily's names remain etched in a rock near the house. Svenningsen said she plans to rebuild a bridge that connected the house to another island before it was washed away by a 1938 hurricane.
"She tends to take very good care of the islands," said John Herzan of the New Haven Preservation trust. "It's not pure preservation, but it's high-quality renovation."
Svenningsen shocked the town in 2003 when she paid $23.5 million for the 7.75-acre Rogers Island, with a Tudor-style mansion, tennis court, docks, swimming pool and bath house. It remains the highest price one of the Thimbles has fetched.
She said developers might otherwise buy up the islands and build condominiums.
"It's not the Hamptons and I don't think anyone wants it to become the Hamptons," Svenningsen said, referring to the celebrity enclave on New York's Long Island. "I think we all like it the way it is, a little slower pace of life."
Her purchases have come as soaring real estate prices, especially along the waterfront, have caused a dramatic jump in property taxes. That has forced some property owners who lived on the islands and the mainland for generations to sell.
Some worry that the islands are increasingly becoming a playground for the rich. The days when families stayed in small homes with kerosene lamps, no televisions and only rainwater for showers are giving way to trophy homes with lush lawns.
"The Thimble Islands were quaint. I don't think they're quaint any more," said Anthony DaRos, a former Branford selectman who has worked on the homes as a contractor for decades. "They were such a great playground for everybody."
Another 'Thimble Island' sells at a bargain
-BRANFORD — Christine Svenningsen, a true fan of the rocky and secluded Thimble Islands, has continued showing her appreciation for the beauty and serenity of the Thimbles with a flourish of a pen in her rather well-appointed checkbook.
Svenningsen just bought another island.
She added Beldens Island, which was listed for $3.9 million last year, for the bargain basement price of just $2.77 million — and she got some offshore oyster grounds in the deal, to boot.
The purchase of Beldens Island, a 1.04-acre expanse that, according to assessor’s records has one house, a wooden shed, a wooden deck and some docks on it, recently was recorded in the town clerk’s office.
It brings the number of Thimble islands now owned by Svenningsen, or limited liability companies she is a principal of, as is the case with Beldens Island, to at least 10 — and the amount she has spent to buy them over the years to at least $33 million.
Svenningsen, the widow of John Svenningsen, a Westchester County, N.Y., party goods magnate who died in 1997 at age 66, sent local jaws a-flapping back in 2003 when she bought the 7.75-acre Rogers Island for the then-unheard-of sum of $23.5 million. It remains the highest price one of the Thimbles has fetched.
Svenningsen also may be angling for an 11th Thimble.
She’s listed as a principal of East Crib LLC, which registered with the secretary of the state’s office earlier this year, although no sale has been recorded for East Crib Island, a 0.52-acre rock in the Thimbles archipelago off Stony Creek.
Svenningsen or her husband has owned neighboring West Crib Island, which has two houses on 1.38 acres, since 1976.
East Crib Island is owned by the Joel Schiavone Irrevocable Family Trust. The trust represents four of the well-known New Haven developer’s children, who inherited the island, which has one house on it, after their grandmother, Esther Schiavone, died in 2002.
Allyx Schiavone of New Haven, one of the siblings, declined to comment Friday on whether a sale was in the works.
The woman who sold Beldens Island to Svenningsen, Geraldine Chandler of Killingworth, who, according to assessor’s records, bought it with her then-husband, John, for $250,000 in 1985, also declined to comment.
Svenningsen has an unlisted telephone number and could not be reached for comment.
Waterbury attorney Thomas E. Porzio, listed as the agent for Beldens Island LLC, which is the island’s new owner on paper, could not be reached for comment.
Beldens Island’s assessed value, according to the 2004 assessment, was $715,900, including $603,300 for the land, $104,200 for the house itself and $8,400 for outbuildings and extra building features, according to town records.
Besides Beldens Island, Rogers Island and West Crib Island, Svenningsen or limited-liability companies she’s associated with bought Wheeler’s Island in 1998, Rogers Island (also known as Yon Comis) in 2003, Phelps Island in 2003, Jepson (or Rock) Island in 2003, Cut-In-Two East Island in 2003, Reel Island in 2004 and Cut-In-Two West Island in 2005.
Over the years, she also purchased a house in Stony Creek with 56 feet of water frontage on Linden Point Road, the small Spencer’s Rock adjacent to Rogers Island and a six-car garage on the mainland at 218 Thimble Islands Road.
The most Svenningsen has paid for any Thimble other than Rogers Island was $3.4 million for 0.8-acre Cut-In-Two East, one of the most famous of the Thimble Islands because legendary P.T. Barnum-era circus star Tom Thumb spent a summer there courting "Miss Emily," the daughter of the island’s owners at the time. According to local legend, Barnum is said to have ordered Thumb instead to marry "Miss Livinia," another of his performers, but Tom and Emily’s names remain etched in a rock near the house.
At the time of the sale, Cut-In-Two East’s 1,300-square-foot house, built in 1900, featured a living room with walls covered in Barnum-era circus and theater posters that commemorated Tom Thumb’s visits.
There are between 100 and 365 Thimble Islands — depending on how you define an island — some not much bigger than a boulder. Of the 25 habitable islands, some of the homes are seasonal and some have been winterized.
Tour boats have taken sightseers among the islands for generations. According to local legend, pirate Captain Kidd left treasure buried on the aptly named Money Island, the most populated of the Thimbles.
Thimble Islands are an archipelago of small islands in Long Island Sound, in and near the harbor of Stony Creek, Connecticut in the southeast corner of Branford, Connecticut, 41°15′52″N, 72°45′11″W. Known to the Mattabesec Indians as "the beautiful sea rocks", they consist of a jumble of granite rocks, ledges, and outcroppings resulting from glaciation, numbering between 100 and 365 depending on where the line is drawn between an island and a mere rock. The islands serve as a rest stop for migrating seals. Some of the shoreline residences in nearby Pine Orchard, Connecticut have a spectacular view of the Thimbles. Although they are said to be named for the thimbleberry, a relative of the black raspberry, that plant is seldom seen in the area, being more frequent in northern New England. Other species of blackberry and raspberry, however, are sometimes referred to by residents of the area as thimbleberries.
The first European to discover the islands was Adrian Block, in 1614. Legend says that Captain Kidd buried his treasure here, causing intermittent interest among treasure hunters who believe they have unearthed a clue to its location, although more interest is generally paid to Gardiner's Island, 30 miles away.
The islands themselves - long prized by sailors on the Sound as a sheltered deep-water anchorage -- comprise 23 that are inhabited (most of them wooded), numerous barren rocks and hundreds of reefs visible only at low tide.
Horse Island, the largest island at 17 acres (69,000 m²), is owned by Yale University and is maintained as an ecological laboratory by Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History. Southern Connecticut State University keeps Outer Island for similar purposes, and Frisbie Island is maintained as a sanctuary for wild birds. Bear Island is home to a granite quarry which exported high quality stone to such constructions as the Lincoln Memorial, Grant's Tomb, and the base of the Statue of Liberty. A much larger quarry just north on the mainland is still working, and supplied the distinctive pink/orange Stony Creek granite for the Brooklyn Bridge and the newest House Office Building in Washington.
The inhabited islands bear a total of 81 houses: 14 islands have only one, one (Governor) has 14, one (Money) has 32, and the rest have between two and six. The houses are built in a variety of styles, ranging from a 27 room Tudor mansion, with tennis and basketball courts and a caretaker's residence on 7.75 acres on Rogers Island, to small summer cottages built on stilts or small clusters of buildings connected by wooden footbridges. Some of the houses cover a small island completely, while Money Island, 12 acres (49,000 m²) in size, bears an entire village of 32 houses, a church and post office buildings, concealed among tall trees. Some of the houses were once occupied year-long, but currently they are only used in the summer. The exposed nature of the houses makes them dangerous during storms; local residents still talk about the hurricane of 1938, which killed seven people. The exclusivity of the houses has made them quite expensive, therefore residents are divided between local families which have owned their home for generations, and more recent residents who tend to be wealthy. The least expensive houses, on Money Island, are appraised at about $600,000. Several are well-known; current and past residents of the Islands range from General Tom Thumb on Cut in Two Island East to Garry Trudeau and Jane Pauley. President William Taft established his "Summer White House" on Davis Island for two years. Residents of the area tend to observe the privacy of island dwellers, obeying the 5-mile-an-hour speed limit for motor craft and never landing without an invitation.
Only six islands get electrical power through underwater cables from the shore; the rest utilize some combination of generators, solar power, batteries, or kerosene and propane. About half the islands get fresh water through underwater pipes from shore; the rest utilize wells or rain water, or have containers of water delivered. No sewers serve the islands, requiring the use of septic tanks for all waste water treatment.
Sailing through the islands can be tricky for those unfamiliar with the area, due to the disorientation caused by the myriad of similar islands (particularly at night), the hidden underwater rocks and ledges, and the complex currents caused by the tides acting on the channels between the rocks.
In the warm season, a small ferry transports people and things between the islands and the Stony Creek harbor on the hour from 8am to 8pm. Prior to the advent of telephones, islanders would hang a red flag on the dock to request a ferry visit. An on-call water taxi has recently been added, and three tour boats take passengers on scenic cruises; kayak tours are also available. Many residents have their own boats, and some occasionally arrive by seaplane.
Some of the Thimble Islands' large enough to have names include
Cut in Two Island (East and West),
Wheeler Island aka Ghost Island,
Mother in Law Island aka Prudden Island,
West Crib Island,
East Crib Island,
Little Pumpkin Island,
In 1976, party goods magnate John Svenningsen of Amscan purchased West Crib Island. After his death in 1997 his widow Christine Svenningsen purchased Wheeler Island in 1998, followed by the purchase of Rogers, Phelps, Jepson, and Cut in Two East in 2003, Reel in 2004 and Cut in Two West in 2005 at a total cost of about $30 million, thus making her owner of more than 20% of the habitable islands and the largest taxpayer in Stony Creek. Locals speculate on any motivation other than simple love of the islands, but approve of her meticulous upkeep and restorations of the properties.
As outcroppings of the granite bedrock which were once the tops of hills but have become islands since due to the rise in sea level after the most recent ice age, the Thimble Islands are much more stable than most of the islands in Long Island Sound, which are terminal moraines of rubble left by retreating glaciers.
Note: The correct term for these type of islands is a "drumlin" Cheyenne Morrison.