New Canaan Now & Then: First Baptist Church of New Canaan

Most may be familiar with this building today, but it is almost unrecognizable in this c 1910 photo.  

This the first Baptist Church in New Canaan, which now stands at 62 Main Street. This church was built in 1872 by the local New Canaan Baptist congregation.  Like every religious congregation in town, the local Baptists had grown tired of spending their Sundays traveling from New Canaan to either Stamford or Norwalk for their services.  The project was spearheaded by Watts Comstock.   Comstock’s involvement would not have been a surprise to residents at the time as his parents, Enoch and Anna, were the first Baptists in New Canaan.  The first service in the church was held on February 6, 1873, and the parishioners included the Tuttle, Weed, Selleck, and Benedict families.  The baptism immersion pool was located under the pulpit, but most converts preferred to head down the hill to be baptized in Mill Pond.  However by the turn of the century, attendance started to wane, and there were no longer the funds to keep the building. In 1908, the building was sold to Dr. James W. McLane, who immediately started to expand the building.  The back of the church was expanded.  He did bump out the front of the building by a few feet so the exterior walls were flush with the front entrance.  Once work was done, Dr. McLane, along with a group of summer residents, financed the “Young Men’s Club” or the “Boys Club.”  With space for a reading/club room along with a gymnasium, it was essentially a precursor to the YMCA.  However, despite the improvements, interest in the club was so low by 1913 that the building was given to the library for its building fund.  The library stayed in its Elm Street location and  62 Main  was rented out to future Selectman George T. Smith and his business partner Segbert S. Brinckeroff.  The pair converted the building into the Suburban Theater, a movie theater and playhouse.  Tickets were a dime and show times were often listed on the front page of the Advertiser.  Acts such as Harry L. Bill, a blind banjo player, drew standing room only crowds.  Other acts were not so lucky.  One act from Springdale was booed off stage after only five minutes and the Advertiser reported they “beat it before the grocer could fetch some eggs to throw at them.”  When the Suburban Theater folded it was replaced by the Pleasant Hour Theater, which seems to have almost immediately closed.  The property was then sold to Francis E. Green, who started his real estate firm in the building.  Green later became a major developer of much of the downtown area of New Canaan.  In 1917, Green sold the building to the local chapter of the Masonic Order, Harmony Lodge No. 67.

Now & Then: Borough of New Canaan

This photo taken on Main Street looking South shows the Cody Pharmacy (on the right), the entrance to East Avenue (between the trees on the left) and the Raymond Building prior to the addition of the exterior paneling (also on the left.) While the photo is undated, the horse and carriage and the appearance of Main Street with its lovely sidewalks indicate that it was taken c. 1900. 

The reason Main Street had this appearance was because the borough of New Canaan had been created a decade before, and had been hard at work improving the village. On January 5, 1889, Francis E. Weed and Junius Benedict submitted a petition to the Connecticut legislature for a charter to create the borough of New Canaan. In essence, borough governments, such as those already in existence in Stamford and Norwalk, could tax its residents within the borough to fund improvements to the village – something that residents living farther outside of Town did not want to do. Weed and Benedict wanted proper lighting, improved sidewalks, and a better police force. The legislature passed the bill and the borough of New Canaan was created on May 9, 1889.

New Canaan Now & Then: Main Street and Locust Avenue

The shoe industry dominated New Canaan’s economy for more than a century. The first factory opened in 1768 on Brushy Ridge Road, but by the early 1800s there were numerous factories in the downtown area. At the height of production, New Canaan shoemakers produced 50,000 pairs per year. Five generations of the Benedict family created a shoe dynasty. At times, they employed as many as 100 people.  

The Big Shop located on the corner of Main Street and Locust Avenue was the factory and retail outlet for Benedict & Co. Sadly, the handmade shoes in New Canaan couldn’t keep up with the mechanized means of production in the factories in Massachusetts. By 1924, there were no shoe factories left. In the photo above, the columns of the 1868-built structure at 60 Main St.—known to many as the Knights of Columbus building, present-day home to Chef Prasad restaurant—can be seen through the trees at right. “New Canaan Now & Then” is presented in partnership with the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society.

New Canaan Now & Then: The ‘Perkins House’ at Park and Seminary Streets

63 Park St. was built in 1836. It served initially as a boarding house for schoolteachers and shoe manufacturers in what was then a burgeoning shoe industry in New Canaan.  

For five years, it was the site of New Canaan Community School, which later became New Canaan Country School.  

And from 1924-1947, it was the home of Max Perkins, editor to F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and many others.  Although Max moved out, the house stayed in his family until the1960s. The architect Richard Bergmann and his wife, Saundra, purchased it in 1973. They stayed for 45 years, living and working out of the Greek Revival building that is on the National Register of Historic Places.  

When they retired to Florida, the building was sold. It is now home to the Onera Foundation. “New Canaan Now & Then” is presented in partnership with the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society.

New Canaan Now & Then: ‘Raymond Building’ on Main Street

This week, we feature a photo of Country Trader, a toy store in downtown New Canaan from about 1955 to 1974. Launched by Richard Franco—brother of Aunt Lydia “Lee” Franco O’Neil and father of many Francos known to New Canaanites today (including Rick, Carl, Mike, Tom, Kelley and Katie), Country Trader started out a bit further south on Main Street, where Spiga restaurant currently is located, and then moved to the “Raymond Building” at 102 Main, according to Tom Franco. “Around 1960 he moved to Upper Elm where Consider the Cook is,” Tom Franco said. “He stayed at that location until maybe 1970 when he moved to the The Raymond building, where Greenwich Pharmacy was. He sold all the top toys, plastic models, bikes and was big on records. He always had the top 100 billboard 45s and albums.”

Tom Franco snapped the photo shown here while on leave from the U.S. Army around 1972.