About New Canaan… a bit of history

The Town of New Canaan, incorporated in 1801,  has all the attributes of a classic New England village, with a real sense of history and a feeling of permanence.  Interestingly, it was first established in 1731 not as a town, but as a Congregational Parish, comprised of settlers residing in northwestern Norwalk and northeastern Stamford who remained residents of their respective towns.

From its earliest days until the Revolutionary War, Canaan Parish was predominantly an agricultural community and was never planned out as towns traditionally were, with a main street, a central common and a town hall.  Comprised of distinct districts centered around Ponus Ridge, Oenoke Ridge, West Road, Talmadge Hill, Smith Ridge and Silvermine, the area grew and changed, with shoemaking the central industry lasting from the Revolutionary War period until the Civil War.

Twenty four years after its incorporation New Canaan built its first municipal building in 1825.  The Town House, which served as a meeting location and voting place for many years, is now the home of the New Canaan Historical Society, housing the Society’s library and archives, as well as many of its historical collections, galleries and exhibitions.  Located near God’s Acre, (considered by many to be New Canaan’s town green, but which in fact is not municipal land) the first town hall was the beginning of New Canaan as we know it today.  Roads went in, and just down the hill Main and Elm became the heart of New Canaan’s downtown.

After the Civil War, with the establishment of a railroad connection to New York City, New Canaan became an attractive destination for wealthy New Yorkers who built their summer homes here.  As rail service improved, many chose to stay on, becoming New Canaan’s first commuters.

Since the early days of the twentieth century New Canaan has grown as a suburb of Manhattan, although today, with major corporations headquartered in Fairfield and Westchester Counties, demographics have shifted once again, with many working closer to home.

An interesting  period in New Canaan’s history, and somewhat at odds with its origins, began with the arrival of the Harvard Five and mid-century modern architecture.  Between the late 1940’s until about 1965, this group, with Philip Johnson at the helm, built their own homes here, and then the homes of many of their clients.  Over 80 modern houses were built during this period, of which approximately 60 still survive.  The most famous of all is Philip Johnson’s Glass House, now owned and operated as a museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Long a mecca for architects and students of architecture, New Canaan is now a destination for many with an appreciation and respect for this significant period in architectural history.

Classic, traditional, sophisticated and affluent are all words that have been used to describe New Canaan.  All are true but there is also a genuine sense of community and civic pride.  Generations remain, newcomers become part of the fabric of the community and there is diversity in the interests and outlook of the residents.  All are welcomed and all are welcoming. Welcome to New Canaan!