New Canaan Now & Then: The Bliss Estate [Part 2 of 2]


Greenhouses on the Bliss Estate in 1940. Photo courtesy of New Canaan Museum & Historical Society

‘New Canaan Now & Then’ is sponsored by Brown Harris Stevens Realtors Joanne Santulli, Karen Ceraso, Bettina Hegel and Schuyler Morris. Part I of this installment can be found here.

The New Canaan Garden Club and local gardeners made the greenhouses their focus for most of the educational efforts. 

The “car barn” became home to the children’s summer camp which was then co-sponsored by the New Canaan Audubon Society. In 1963, the Town contributed $30,000 to renovate the horse barn, which was then converted into classrooms, offices, restrooms, exhibit space and dark room. Another exciting development was that two ponds were created with the help of the New Canaan Kiwanis Club in 1965 and in 1967 the Beginner’s Nature Program opened.

Maintaining the greenhouses during the energy crisis of the 1970s was an issue for the Town, given that the cost to heat the four glass house structures was $10,000 a year and it became apparent that a new greenhouse should be erected. At the time, the NCNC used 6500 gallons of fuel oil each year to heat the greenhouses. The steel beams that supported the glass walls of the greenhouse were rusting and some had holes in them. Susan Hanson, former president of the NCNC remarked that construction would not begin until 80-90 percent of the funds were raised. Three of the glass houses were demolished leaving only the potting house and display house, which were originally constructed as a grapery during Catherine Bliss’s era. In 1983 with $850,000 in privately raised funds a new state of the art solar greenhouse was erected where the Bliss vegetable gardens was sited. The new greenhouse by Buchanan and Watson, a Branford architectural firm, was designed to be entirely dependent on solar energy. A layer of stone beneath the building, water holding tanks inside the building and mounding of earth along the building walls (affectionately known to Beginner Nature Center students as “Silly Hill”) would heat the building in the winter and cool it in the summer. It is interesting to note that two years prior to this capital campaign the NCNC had received estimates to reglaze the windows for $200,000, which obviously would have been a short term solution.

In 1988 the Discovery Center was opened which is a hands-on exhibit gallery, a resource library and a gift shop on the first floor of the Activities Building. The half million dollar project included $75,000 worth of structural renovations (paid for by the Town) while the balance was raised from private sources. The marsh boardwalk was also constructed in 1988 and the home to treat injured and orphaned wildlife was established. In 1989, with assistance from the New Canaan Community Fund, further renovations were made to the Activities Building to add a new office and supply areas. An article in the Advertiser from 1990 reports that at that time the NCNC was visited by more than 60,000 people.

The NCNC celebrated its 30 birthday in September 1990 and the Assistant Director Richard Haley commented that “ideas of environmentalism are applicable across the board. Managing a planet and managing a backyard — there’s a lot of similarities.” The relatively new 4,000 square foot greenhouse at the time hid from the parking lot the model backyard naturalist garden, complete with waterfall, still pond, native trees and flower beds and served as a gateway to the two miles of nature trails. Another fun fact is that a distinguished group of Soviet environmentalists specifically asked for the greenhouse to be on their Northeast tour of alternative energy sites. 

In 1994, an apparent “prank” resulted in a costly oil spill at the Nature Center. Apparently, 450 gallons of oil was siphoned from an underground oil tank on the property using a nearby garden hose. The vandals also threw a bench in the pond and knocked over beehives. The oil spill was contained in soil within 50 feet of the oil tank but still required that several trees had to be cleared to remove the contaminated soil. According to the DEP Emergency Response coordinator there would be some seepage into the nearby wetlands. The cost of the clean up was over $30,000 and there appears to be no record to indicate that the vandals were ever apprehended.

In 2012 the NCNC began a partnership with native farmer, “Uncle Buck” Randy Brown. Mr. Brown taught a series of ten workshops on planting and growing healthy plants from seed. 

The December 13, 2023 article in the New Canaanite highlighted the greenhouse’s sorely needed renovations. Bill Flynn, executive director of the Nature Center, describes in depth why these renovations are necessary, commenting that only succulents can be grown in the facility due to the inability to control the temperature in the failing building. The greenhouse, in its prime, was home to many prize winning chrysanthemums and other plants, often winning prizes at the flower show hosted by the White Plains and Central Westchester Horticulture Society.

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