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A peaceful corner of the porch at The Candlelite Inn on Shelter Island. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

One morning in 1997, John Sieni was driving on South Ferry Road when he noticed Harry Cass nailing a “For Sale” sign to a tree at the side of the road. Beyond was a graceful old structure that housed The Candlelite, an inn and restaurant.

Sieni stopped and asked if he could look around. It wasn’t long before he’d fallen in love with the place, with the deep lawn leading to a gingerbread-trimmed porch wrapping the first floor of the two-story Victorian.

“Halfway through the tour, I said, ‘I’ll take it,’” Sieni said. He soon had installed his beauty salon, the JBS Salon, a light-filled spot on the first floor, and updated and remodeled  rest of the B&B.

There are five guest rooms with private baths, and common rooms on the first floor, and a cottage. Plus, day or night, in morning mists or on clear nights, the porch is always beckoning to sit and take it easy.

Updated and modernized recently, as it has been since he bought it, The Candlelite is all Shelter Island — easy, charming, comfortable and wearing its history and graciousness lightly (see story below).

“I’ve been on Shelter Island since I was 5 years old,” Sieni said, and quickly gave a resume of going to school here, working in landscaping, service in the U.S. Navy and living in New York City. He’s one of Shelter Island’s most energetic entrepreneurs, formerly co-owning La Maison Blanche, and owning Shelter Island Storage, the salon and The Candlelite.

In 2019, Sieni bought The Tuck Shop, the beloved Island ice cream spot and gave it a full makeover.

Keeping it simple with his guest house, Sieni has one employee, whom he identified as Adelpha, but he pitches in with everything, including laundry and cleaning. Almost all upgrades to the structure is done by him, he said. “I just re-tiled the bathrooms.”

He does the plumbing and carpentry, trades he learned from his father, also named John, handles bookings and sets out the continental breakfast. He doesn’t live in the house, but “I’m right around the corner if anyone needs me,” he said. 

With all of his business ventures, the guest house is one of the most satisfying, he said. Operating a restaurant at La Maison Blanche had its charms, but they were outweighed by headaches with staffing and other problems, Sieni said. Like other Island inns, his business depends to a certain extent on big Island weddings, or when friends and family come visiting and need places to stay.

Big changes are on the way, he noted, with prices in the hospitality industry spiking, and he’s holding the line as much as he can to keep visiting Shelter Island affordable. He doesn’t advertise, but relies on the Inn’s website, and praised the Chamber of Commerce for keeping a spotlight on Island businesses. 

Sieni said that there is a hometown loyalty among most of the B&B’s on Shelter Island, which is manifested when one place is booked but still getting people seeking reservations. “I’ll refer them to others, and they do the same for me,” he said. “On [Shelter] Island we all work together.”

There are no negatives to running The Candlelite, he said. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of guests are good.”

Best part of the business? “Easy. Meeting wonderful people.”

The many lives of a Shelter Island house: A brief history of The Candlelite

The Inn today. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

The house that’s been gracing a part of South Ferry Road for more than 190 years — the actual date of construction is a matter of speculation — has had many roles. A private house, a dance studio, a restaurant, various guest houses, and currently The Candlelite Inn, the Bed & Breakfast owned and operated by John Sieni.

Much has changed, of course, while the bones of the house have remained classic in form since it was constructed. A document in the archives of the Shelter Island Historical Society says, “It is believed that Martin Prince, a prominent Shelter Island citizen in the 19th Century, built this house.”

Prince, a story from the Shelter Island Reporter in 1979 said, was “a gentleman merchant, strict teetotaler and partner in the firm Archibald R. Havens and Martin Luther Prince, which had its office on Grand Avenue … Mr. Prince married Lucretia Cartwright, and what their life was like is unknown, except maybe to the place they called home.”

The next surfacing of information relates that in the early 1920s a contractor from Bridgehampton, Thomas Burns, put in a bid when the house was being auctioned, and it became his when the auctioneer’s hammer came down on his offering of somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000. Doing some work in the 1920s, a carpenter found the name “Prince” written on a beam and estimated the structure to be about 115 years old.

Elizabeth Brady told the Reporter four decades ago that her parents, Lucy and Edgar Burns, bought the house in the mid-1920s. When her father died soon after, his widow did what many women owning a large old house did in those days. She took in boarders, who were mostly unmarried schoolteachers. Among the boarders listed as staying at the house are Melva Sherman, Helen Dawson, Sue Hallock and Isabel Schaible.

The house was sold by the Burns’ daughter Elizabeth in 1963 to Stelvie and Grace Silvani. The Silvanis converted the house into a restaurant, doubling the size of the kitchen, adding on to the dining room and installing three bathrooms. A large wooden bar was purchased in Patchogue and a sign on South Ferry Road went up calling the place “Giovanna’s Candlelite Inn” after their daughter, the present Giovanna Ketcham.

In its heyday, it was reported that the restaurant’s Thursday night specials packed in from 75 to 100 people. The menu offered a full-course meal of fruit cup, salad, lasagna or spaghetti with meatballs, a glass of wine and dessert. There were only a few complaints, it was said, about the bill: $2.

The restaurant went through several more owners, becoming for a while a bar only, and then the house, as the Reporter story said, “went strangely empty and quiet again as it did long ago.”

That’s until Harry and Joan Cass and family, visiting from Connecticut, discovered it in December 1977 and, like its present owner, John Sieni, had a love-at-first-sight moment. In July 1978, they remodeled and opened the inn with seven bedrooms. Daily rates were $30 for two persons and weekly for $160.

In February 1980, a fire broke out at the Inn, with no injuries, and the Cass family began another restoration project.

The family operated the Inn until the day in 1997 when Harry was putting a “For Sale” sign on South Ferry Road, which caught Sieni’s eye, who, like those before him, was seduced by its beauty, grace and charm.