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 any one 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.”