Mysterious Island Lady Takes a Prince

Mary Johnson PhotoIt was Stony Creek’s wedding of the decade as Christine Svenningsen, who owns ten of the Thimble Islands, married John G. Chiarella, Jr., a landscaping entrepreneur who manages them, in an elegant ceremony.

Under sunny skies, Svenningsen, 52, and Chiarella, 57 (pictured after the ceremony), took their vows late Saturday afternoon on Rogers Island, a 7.75-acre hideaway with a 27-room Tudor-style mansion built in 1902, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a golf course and elaborate formal gardens.

Svenningsen shocked the village of Stony Creek and the town of Branford when she paid $22.3 million for Rogers Island in 2003. She now owns 10 of the two-dozen inhabitable Thimble Islands. In the last seven years, Svenningsen has become one of the top three taxpayers in Branford and is also a top employer. She is rarely seen in public; her closely-held plans for the islands have become the subject of recurrent speculation in the town.

Mary Johnson PhotoThe three-day wedding festivities began Friday on West Crib Island, her first home in the islands. It moved to the Rogers Island wedding site on Saturday and then to Wheeler’s Island for Sunday brunch, a source said. Hundreds of wedding guests were transported to the Stony Creek dock in small buses and then by private boat to the festivities. The couple was said to be on their honeymoon and unavailable for comment.

The marriage may mark the dawn of a new Stony Creek dynasty, bringing together a top landowner and a top contractor who have been reshaping the area’s storied archipelago.

In April Chiarella signed off as the owner/agent for the Cut-in-Two East Island LLC in the proposed renovation of a house on the island. Svenningsen purchased the island in 2003 for $3.4 million. 

P.T. Barnum circus star General Tom Thumb spent his summers in the house that is soon scheduled to be demolished and rebuilt on the same footprint. The architects for the new house told the Zoning Board of Appeals in May that they plan to preserve a wall and ceiling in the home that are papered with old and priceless circus posters. Several residents asked that the art work be preserved, and Svenningsen agreed. 
Chiarella started his company, Ultimate Services, Inc., in 1971 while still in high school. He began with just one employee, a push lawn mower and a handful of clients, his website says. Now his staff numbers 100 and is located in Greenwich, Westport and Wolcott, the company headquarters.

With the help of Chiarella’s company, Svenningsen has transformed her islands, conducting major renovations on the houses and grounds, employing contractors, landscapers and a host of other workers who daily boat to her islands from Stony Creek. Her family flag along with Palm trees adorn the islands.  On the mainland she has purchased several houses, two of which stand empty, and a studio with five bays. 

Mary Johnson PhotoIn her only known interview, Svenningsen, an artist, told the Associated Press in 2006 that there “is no master plan for my islands. They’re like little pieces of art. I get to put my brush to them.” Some residents are concerned about her plans for the future. A number of the houses on her islands, though beautifully renovated, remain empty.

From 2003 to 2007 Svenningsen went on an island-buying spree, hiring Chiariella’s company to oversee the landscaping, land restoration and ground management. She spent more than $30 million for nine islands, excluding the costs for major renovations.

Her first husband, John Svenningsen, died in 1997 at age 66. He went from running his business out of a garage in 1960 to becoming chairman and CEO of Amscan in Elmsford, N.Y., one of the world’s largest suppliers of party goods, including hats, paper plates and balloons.

The Svenningsens first came to Stony Creek when they purchased West Crib Island in 1976 for $121,500. Mrs. Svenningsen purchased Wheeler Island in 1998 for $520,000.

In 2003, along with Rogers Island, Svenningsen also purchased Phelps Island for $1 million, Jepson for $1.4 million and Cut in Two East for $3.4 million. In 2004 she purchased Reel Island for $100,000. In 2005 she purchased Cut in Two West for $2.4 million and in 2007 East Crib for $3.15 million.

Svenningsen lives in Westchester County. She and her family spend time on some of her islands during summer months.


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posted by: Land Lover on July 1, 2010  11:26am

Y’know, It supposed to be a horrendous hurricane season this year. Good luck, Island Lady! Have you figured out a way to purchase the favor of nature yet?

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 1, 2010  1:20pm

Didn’t know the Independent ran a ‘Society’ page.

posted by: Linda Zonana on July 1, 2010  4:53pm

I wish she’d purchase the Stony Creek post office and donate it to the town.  A little tax write-off her her, maybe.  She wouldn’t even notice the loss of the money involved, but we will all notice the loss of the post office, if it comes to that.

posted by: William Kurtz on July 2, 2010  11:01am

I know this is technically a Branford Eagle piece, but it did pop up on the top of the page on the Independent and I, too, find the fawning tone a little bit off-putting, as I do the unquestioning endorsement of private “ownership” of what really ought to be a natural resource.

posted by: Marianne on July 2, 2010  12:20pm

This is certainly newsworthy- a fairy tale in action. It’s what’s called marrying well. Too many young women today have not mastered this fine art. She married a millionaire when she was 18- he was 45. Of course, outlived him- purchased a kingdom and remarried a guy with a full head of hair at age 52. It doesn’t get better than that.

posted by: doug on July 2, 2010  3:32pm

It’s certainly newsworthy. Just because a few people are either jealous of her wealth or are otherwise put off by wealth doesn’t mean it’s not newsworthy. This is a high profile local wedding. Kudos for reporting it.

posted by: Bill Saunders on July 3, 2010  4:00am


Laudable Fairytale!!!
Wealth and Beauty win out in the end….....

posted by: Fawn, Deer! on July 3, 2010  9:57am

If it is news, it’s certainly a story of people who are happy together.  The islands look beautiful in part because of them, so maybe you can find a way to be happy about that (in your bitter bitter hearts?)!

posted by: Disgusted on July 4, 2010  12:22am

Take a boatride through the Thimbles. She has her personal flag ABOVE the American flag. (Yes, she uses a yardarm to make it permissible.)... Doesnt feel like Branford, feels like a foreign country. I’m not jealous of her money, I am disgusted by her conspicuous consumption!

posted by: scjerry on July 5, 2010  7:25am

To those who find Marcia’s account “fawning”, I remind you that both men mentioned in this story are self-made, rising to the top on their own blood, sweat, tears and ingenuity - no silver spoons. In my view that is the real story of America on this independence holiday.

We all have the same chance. 

On another note, Christine would be well advised to use some of her wealth and inherited good fortune to aid her community. Purchasing the post office and giving it to the town has been mentioned. Purchasing the Puppet House and renovating a historical landmark, or buying the Wyle property for open space. Her visible community altruism is shockingly absent - not that she may not contribute to other worthy causes. She could start by making substantial contributions to the Fife and Drum Corps, the Charley Moore island shuttle, or even the Volunteer Fire Department. The latter organization could use the help in protecting her island investments.

Finally, while she is the town’s 3rd largest taxpayer and a large employer, so were the former owners in aggregate of the many homes that now lie vacant.

They were part of the community, now so sadly gone.

posted by: Dana MacKenzie on July 5, 2010  11:33am

I think you “creekers” are a tad bitter.  Explain why you think that Christine should have to “buy” the Post Office (or any other property for that matter) for the bitter jealous Stony Creek people? You should enjoy what she has done.  Her islands are spectacular. She has beautified Stony Creek.  I realize that it hasn’t been easy for the people who live in the creek, dealing with all the extra traffic and congestion, but the end result is worth it.  Suck it up and enjoy the good she has done for your community, bringing income into the creek. Stop blaming Christine for your own short comings.

posted by: John Opie on July 7, 2010  11:14am

I concur with Dana MacKenzie.
Ms. Sveningson has done beautiful things with each and every property she has purchased.  It should be remembered that behind every property she has bought, there has been a willing seller who has usually received more than anyone else would be willing to pay.
As a property owner, she has never asked for anything over and above what she had a right to nor asked the town for any special favors.
Her workers are polite and remarkably diligent.
Given the amount of “bad mouthing” she has received from some of our prominent citizens, why would she consider making substantial “gifts” to the Town?
She may be wealthy but I suspect she has feelings just like the rest of us.

posted by: JBV on July 9, 2010  8:39am

This kind of grousing regarding wealth and what folks choose to do about it is what cause the social divides in our society that lead to the wide chasms between the haves and have nots.

It’s not about money, it’s about jealousy, an extremely bad an unhealthy emotion.

This is a very nice story and was very well written. How about this as a perspective; Christine is wealthy, great. However, she also lost a husband and after a decade plus found someone else to share her life with. All the money in the world can’t cure loneliness or take the place of a loved one. Be happy for her and her husband and thank her for the beautiful way in which she has enhanced the islands we all love so much. 

I was fortunate to be on Money Island when Christine had her Rehearsal Dinner on West Crib. It was tastefully done, with fewer people than one may imagine and well received by everyone on Money Island as it was a beautiful site and the festivities including the music were ceased at a reasonable hour and her guests caused no problems at all. A nice affair.