New Canaan Now & Then: The Opera House

Now 80 Main Street, Nichols Opera House was built in 1890 by George Duff Nichols. The original plan for an 850 person auditorium was to be the new Town Hall, but the Town decided it did not need one. Nonetheless, the Opera House became the de facto town hall. On either side of the entrance to the opera house, Nichols also had two storefronts built. A few months before the building was even finished, the southern storefront had already been rented out to the town for $350 a month. When the building was finished in December of 1890, it was the location for the town clerk’s office, the selectman’s office, and, with three jail cells in the basement, the town jail. All of the town’s important documents were also kept in the fireproof vault that had been installed in the storefront for this purpose.  The auditorium was regularly rented out for town meetings and the rented offices were sometimes used as a courtroom. 

When it first opened, the Nichols Opera House could compete with the finest in the state. The stage, the backdrops, and the dressing rooms were top quality. There was even a banquet hall in the basement. It was also the first building to be electrified in New Canaan. The first show held there,”Annette, the Dancing Girl”, opened on December 23, 1890.  Shows were also held on the following day, Christmas Eve, with a banquet starting at 12:30 am. In order to accommodate the out of towners, Nichols arranged for an extra train to leave New Canaan at 11:30 pm. However this sort of event did not last long. It quickly became apparent that a small town such as New Canaan could not support an opera house.  Within a year, the opera house was mostly hosting plays put on by local companies, and local events. No operas were actually ever performed here. Unsurprisingly, the underground banquet hall did not prove to be successful, so Nichols converted the space into a corset and underwear factory. The electric lights also did not last long. After two months, Nichols had the building converted to gas light fixtures. It was most likely too expensive to run the generator needed to power the building.

New Canaan Now & Then: Elm Street Between South and Main

The New Canaan G. C. Murphy originally opened in 1924 in the Raymond Building on Main Street. Murphy’s was a national chain of five-and-dime stores that opened its first store in Pittsburgh in 1906.  In 1939, Murphy’s owners razed the building that was formerly occupied by Stevens Auto Cab and built the storefront which is now occupied by Ralph Lauren at 51 Elm. The new store, pictured here, opened on March 14, 1940 and remained in operation at this location until 1963. This photograph, taken sometime around 1947, is only one of four color photographs that the Museum has of downtown New Canaan from this era. The white building at the bottom right is Walter Stewart’s at its Main Street location, which is now the extension of the Chase Bank. Just to the left of Stewart’s is the corner of the Raymond Building with its original facade. Also notice that Elm Street was only partially one way at this point. It was only one way from Main Street to South Ave with the rest of the block being open to two way traffic as shown by the cars parked in the opposite direction in the lower right of the photo.

New Canaan Now & Then: ‘White Oak Shade District’ Antique

Carey Weed, born in Stamford in 1782, settled on a farm in what was then called the White Oak Shade District.  

He was a soldier in the War of 1812. With his second wife, Hannah Reed, he had a son, Andrew J. Weed, who was born August 19, 1819.  

Like his father, Andrew was both a farmer and a shoemaker.  Andrew married Betsey Banks, from Easton, and they lived and ran his father’s farm on White Oak Shade.  Andrew and Betsey had five children – Clarissa, Mary, Henry, John, and Freddie, whom they raised in their house at #33 (listed today as #51). According to tax records, the four-bedroom house has been owned by just four families since the bicentennial of 1976, when it was sold for $137,000. The town in 2003 issued permits to demolish a garage and reassemble a barn on the 1.07-acre property. “New Canaan Now & Then” is presented in partnership with the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society.

Podcast: Researching Slavery in New Canaan

This week on 0684-Radi0, our free podcast (subscribe here in the iTunes Store), we talk to Nancy Geary, executive director of the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society, about a research project into the history of enslaved and free black people in New Canaan. Thanks to a grant from the New Canaan Community Foundation, the Historical Society will bring in a researcher and exhibition developer to help create a show for display this coming winter. We talk to Nancy about the research project’s origins, what has turned up so far and what you our listeners may do to help the Historical Society as it gathers up relevant information, photographs and artifacts. 

Located at 13 Oenoke Ridge, the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society can be reached at 203-966-1776 and 

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