Island dwellers the world over have noted rising sea levels with increasing alarm, but for Barrie Zesiger and her husband, Al, the lone inhabitants of Connecticut’s three acre Tavern Island, climate change has resulted in an unexpected if temporary benefit: “Going across the sound at 2 a.m. in the winter isn’t a big deal,” Zesiger said. “It’s easy, because things don’t freeze over anymore.”
It also helps that the trip from island to shore takes about five minutes. Travel is easy enough that the Zesigers, who recently retired from the money management firm they founded, spent more than 35 years commuting to Manhattan. (The island is just off the town of Rowayton, which is a little more than an hour’s drive from the city with traffic. The couple also keeps an apartment in New York.) But after her husband fell in a horse riding accident—“we were going to get rid of the horse, but the horse got rid of us first,” she said—they decided to sell the island.
It first hit the market in 2012, a month before Hurricane Sandy; and though the island emerged almost completely unscathed from the storm, “coastal real estate in Connecticut totally disappeared for a year,” Zesiger explained. Four years later the Tudor Revival-style house, caretaker’s cottage, boathouse, teahouse, and a plot of land on the mainland with a three-car garage and a second boathouse are still waiting for a buyer willing to spend $10.995 million.
The Zesigers bought the island in 1981 for about $1 million. At the time, the island was in a state of mild disrepair: The theater legend Billy Rose had lived there for decades, and “he’d put up all sorts of sandstone goddesses,” Zesiger said. “There were peacocks; it was a mess.” It took almost five years to clean up the island, raise the sea walls, and put in the swimming pool. “We opened the area up,” she said.
At present, the island feels more like a New England family compound than a weather-beaten outcropping. The main house, which has six bedrooms, was renovated by the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who added a dining area—“the previous one was basically made of plastic,” Zesiger said—along with the island’s wharf and a toolshed. The duo, recently tapped to design President Obama’s presidential library in Chicago, were “just young puppies then,” she said.
The island also has a two-bedroom caretaker’s cottage. “It works well to keep someone there year-round,” Zesiger said, noting that there are worse jobs to have: “When the wind is up, we all go out on the water. You don’t wait even an hour,” she explained. “Even our caretaker goes out and sails, then gets his work done when he can. Those are the rules.”
Sailboats and other pleasure craft are kept in the boathouse, above which there’s a bedroom and playroom, “for pool, foosball, you name it,” Zesiger said.
Island life, she continued, is restorative. “There’s something about having to take a boat home,” she said. “It makes you forget you’ve just come from an office.”