New York Times July 2006

In The Region | Connecticut

Living Half a Mile Off the Coast


Published: July 30, 2006

ON a summer evening earlier this month, as the shell-pink sky over Long Island Sound deepened to rose, the deck of the water taxi to East Crib Island, about half a mile off the coast of Branford, Conn., was ringed with nine smiling windswept faces and weighted with boxes of groceries and board games.

SECLUDED, WITH VIEWS Thimble Island houses are usually handed down through families — unlike this house on East Crib, listed at $3.9 million. None of the heirs feel they can afford to buy the others’ shares.

Three of the nine were guests headed to a party at Allyx Schiavone’s island home, which is on the market. There, the smell of grilled meat scented the salted air and nostalgia mingled with regret. “Can we say the place is haunted?” Ms. Schiavone, 36, asked her real estate agent, Joseph Piscitelli, half in jest, moments after he stepped off the taxi to supervise a Friday evening showing of the home. “I hate to part with it.”

Indeed, East Crib, like the 22 other inhabited islands in this storybook archipelago known as the Thimble Islands, is haunted by the ghostly scenes of summers past: Monopoly games illumined by kerosene lanterns, boat-borne dinner parties and showers that rely on rainwater. At the moment, the Schiavone house on East Crib Island, built about 40 years ago, is the only one for sale on the Thimble Islands, according to Mr. Piscitelli, who sells waterfront real estate for Coldwell Banker.

The property, listed for $3.9 million, was willed to Ms. Schiavone and her three siblings by her grandmother, Esther Schiavone, who died in 2002. None of the heirs feel they can afford to buy the others’ shares of the house, so they have put it up for sale, Ms. Schiavone said.

The design of this 1,888-square-foot house differs from that of its more traditional shingled or clapboard Thimble Islands peers. With stucco facade, flat roof and teakwood living room, the house has the retro, preppy ambience of an advertisement for Kate Spade, the handbag designer.

The five-room house features a living room flanked on three sides by glass and a wraparound porch, where bathing suits were drying in the setting sun. There are two lower-level bedrooms, and one upstairs. The half-acre of scrub pine and day lilies includes a deepwater dock and beach. Its vista includes other islands and the sailboat-dotted Sound.

East Crib is one of only six islands that receive electricity from the mainland; the rest either have no power or rely on generators. Before the advent of cellphones, islanders summoned boat transportation by placing red flags on their docks.

Ms. Schiavone, whose father, Joel Schiavone, is a well-known New Haven real estate developer, says island living doesn’t mean isolation. “Everyone out here thinks of it as a place to come with your family,” she said. “It almost feels weird to be out here alone.”

There are 100 to 365 islands in the Thimbles, depending on one’s definition of “island”; 23 are inhabited and have 81 dwellings, most of them summer homes. Money Island, with its 32 houses, could be considered bustling. But many islands, like Ms. Schiavone’s, have just one or two homes. Two of the islands are so close that a footbridge connects them.

Despite their thimblelike size, the islands, which are part of the Town of Branford, were actually named for a variety of berry.

Over the centuries, they have had a number of notable visitors. Captain William Kidd dropped anchor here and, legend has it, buried his treasure on one of the islands. For two years while he was president, William H. Taft spent summers on Davis Island. Nowadays, the television personality Jane Pauley and her husband, the Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, have a home on Governor’s Island.

Fifteen years ago, many of the island homeowners stayed for the entire summer, but Mr. Piscitelli says it is now more common for owners to visit either on weekends or for a week or two at a time, often from their year-round homes in New York or New Jersey.

In the summer, Thimble tour boats wend past the islands on the hour, Ms. Schiavone said. There are two passenger ferries and the water taxi, which charges $8 round trip, for island transport, but some choose to use their own boats. Island residents leave their cars on roads in Stony Creek, the seaside village that is part of Branford, although some have rented or bought garage space near the dock.

On High Island, none of the residents have running water, so they collect rainwater in cisterns. They obtain power from generators or 12-volt batteries. There are no sewers on any of the islands, which means septic tanks are required. Mr. Piscitelli said the lack of sewers had inhibited growth and development. The islands are also vulnerable to storms.

Bob Milne, a native of Branford who pilots the ferry Volsunga IV and conducts boat tours of the Thimble Islands, said the 1980’s brought the biggest change to them, in the form of new money and renovations. “Pretty much any place that could have been upgraded has been,” he said. “‘Now it’s just crazy. There’s a lot of money out there.”

Indeed, on a Friday evening, a seaplane alighted on the foamy green waters next to one island and dispersed luggage-wielding passengers to a dinghy.

But John Herzan of the New Haven Preservation Trust says there is an inherent respect for the islands’ architecture. “There’s a lot of pride and appreciation for these islands,” he said, “and in general, people have renovated in a historically sensitive manner.”

Home sales are a rarity. Employees in the town tax assessor’s office said the islands’ properties were more typically handed down through families.

In the late 1990’s, Christine Svenningsen, whose late husband, John, was the president of the party goods manufacturer Amscan, caused a stir by buying entire islands; she now owns five. In 2003, she bought four — including Phelps Island, which has no houses, for $1,000, and Rogers Island, which included four buildings, for $22.3 million.

The name aside, the cottages on Money Island are the Thimbles’ most affordable, with the least expensive being about $600,000.

Although Ms. Schiavone and her siblings have made the decision to part with their beloved island, they would like to leave their stamp on it.

“My grandmother’s nickname was Rip and we’ve always called the place Rip’s Rock,” Ms. Schiavone said, as the sun-streaked Sound unfurled behind her like foil paper. “She swam around the island every day in the summer. We’re starting a campaign to change the name because, in some ways, it will always be her island.”

Joseph Piscitelli
Joseph Piscitelli
171 Broad Street Milford CT 06460