Who Knew: New Canaan’s DNA


‘Who Knew?’ is sponsored by Walter Stewart’s Market.

Is it too on-the-nose to start a column about historical exploration in New Canaan with a Back to the Future reference? Because I’m about to. 

I’ve stood at the corner of Main and Elm streets and wished for a backpack full of Doc’s plutonium rods and a DeLorean whose dials I could fiddle with endlessly. It would provide the perfect front-row seat to the past nature of this place. What kinds of dinosaurs roamed these fair fields during the Mesozoic era? Did Ponus, the Siwanoy chieftain, ever pause on the ridge that would one day bear his name to admire the sunset before turning north, just like I do in 2024? In a time before Birkins and Patek Philippe, what status symbols did early New Englanders parade around town, or was such display considered… whatever the Puritans’ word was for “super gauche”? Most importantly, were 19th-century horse and buggy drivers as opinionated about parking on Elm Street as we all are now? Because I’ve got some thoughts, and I will discuss them with literally anyone, space-time continuum be damned.

Look at all that available parking on Elm. Dreamy. Photo courtesy of the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society

Call me an armchair archaeologist, but I want to dive deeper into the past. I want to look until patterns reveal themselves, to understand whether the conversations we have today echo ones held decades ago, or if we’re living in an era as novel as we believe it to be. Despite being on the younger side of Generation X (thankyouverymuch), I have Okay, Boomered myself many times lately as I longed for a simpler time before tech angst and celebrity lip balm collabs. I don’t know if I care about biohacking, VR goggles, or pretty much anything with Kylie Jenner’s name on it. I just want good stories, friendly neighbors, and maybe a little ice cream in the summer. 

This is why the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society is such a fantastic resource: It’s where cultural themes and through-lines become evident. 

Inside the Rock School. The “LAZY CHILD” signs speak to a different era of education philosophy.
Photo: Meghan Gould, provided by the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society

The ambitions and contributions of the New Canaanites who lived here before us are writ large, and visitors can gain a deeper understanding of this place. The Museum is currently wrapping up construction on a beautiful, comprehensive new gallery, The Jim and Dede Bartlett Center for New Canaan History, that will tell the story of the town’s history through objects, photographs, profiles, and interactive displays. This space is set to open in early June, with a special preview at the annual party on May 31st. 

John Rogers’s studio.
Photo: Meghan Gould, provided by the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society

The new exhibition is part of the main building, an 1825 structure that once served as our Town Hall, and a meeting place upstairs for our chapter of the Masons. At this point, I can’t help but imagine Masons as the Stonecutters from The Simpsons because, again, Gen X, but I digress. The Town House is now the starting point for the Museum and Historical Society’s seven-building campus. This campus includes the 1764 Hanford-Silliman House (featuring New Canaan’s first licensed tavern!), the 1799 Rock School (originally built at Canoe Hill and Laurel Roads and served consistently as a schoolhouse until 1933), and the Rogers Studio. In this charming original building, America’s most popular sculptor, John Rogers, created his “groups,” sculptures that told stories of history and daily life that he sold at accessible prices to a wide swath of Victorian era American households. 

Nancy Geary and Whitney Williams.
Photo provided by the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society

I recently stopped by the Museum to spend some time with Executive Director Nancy Geary and Events Manager Whitney Williams (here’s a recurring New Canaan theme for you: brilliant women doing the absolute most to make this town a fantastic place to live). I got a sneaky look at the new gallery. It will serve as the jewel in the crown of the New Canaan Museum’s multi-year Campus Reimagined Campaign, a marathon fundraising effort designed to build, restore, and protect the spaces where the organization’s treasures are kept. 

If storytelling through objects is the name of the game, building a permanent exhibition that tells a concise story is that game’s central challenge. Over the years, the museum has received far more gifts than there is space to display. The theme, “Making a Difference in New Canaan,” sharpens that curatorial focus by highlighting influential people, businesses, and movements that have shaped our town (and points beyond) over the years. 

The Museum’s space has been utterly transformed. Here’s a sneaky look inside during installation.

The exhibition, designed by Megan Semanik from Philadelphia-based Metcalfe Architecture, will feature some items you may already associate with New Canaan, like a cobbler’s bench and shoemaking tools from our 19th-century stint as a locus for footwear manufacturing. Also on display will be Eliot Noyes’s Selectric typewriter from a century later when we became a renowned hub for modernist architecture. But there are additive, colorful stories that Geary, Williams, and their team are thrilled to include, like a book of letters to the New Canaan Advertiser editor protesting the Harvard Five’s architecture, a pewter baluster from New Canaan’s first licensed tavern, and the late Leo Karl’s 1939 reader from the Little Red Schoolhouse.

Says Geary, “We also have an interactive media console where you’ll see 50 New Canaan residents, and another one that has 75 historically significant clothing, tools, textiles, and more decorative arts so visitors can see a wider range of the collection.  A piece we’re really excited about is a video exhibit that tracks the evolution of downtown, starting with original footage from Pathé News that was filmed in 1913.”

Pierre’s, also known as “Izzy’s Place”.
New Canaan Museum & Historical Society

As you might expect, the stories one hears from the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society team are uplifting and often center around ordinary people whose contributions make them anything but. “Izzy Cohen,” says Geary, “is now my favorite New Canaanite. He was the bartender for Joe Doyle, who had Joe’s Pub in town, and Joe was blind. To be blind and own a bar, your bartender had to be doubly trustworthy. So, for all these years, Izzy works for Joe. Joe is Catholic, Izzy is Jewish, and Joe Doyle’s business card has a leprechaun with a Hebrew prayer going around the outside of the image. It’s this perfect story of community. Joe died, and his family decided to leave the bar to Izzy, who changed the name to Pierre’s, but everyone still called it ‘Izzy’s Place.’” A legacy of kindness and a good hamburger? I’m here for it. 

Beautiful antique bottles held the good stuff in the Cody pharmacy. Photo: Meghan Gould, provided by the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society

One perennial favorite wing of the museum serves as a portal to a bygone era: the meticulously preserved interior of the Cody Pharmacy. Though the original Cody Pharmacy closed its Main Street doors in 1966, it’s been carefully reconstructed adjacent to the Town House. Here, you’ll find original fixtures, meticulously polished counters, and even remnants of medications from the early 20th century to transport you to a world of apothecaries, personalized service, and a remarkably different attitude toward the health benefits of cocaine. 

Because Cody Pharmacy, like most pharmacies of its day, served ice cream, the Museum puts on an ice cream social each year in its honor. This year’s social will be on June 2nd and will feature a classic car show. So, if you’re in the mood to air out your vintage 300SL Gullwing, please do flap by. 

On the evening of Friday, May 31st, the Museum’s annual spring celebration will be held, with a whiskey tasting, cigars, and live music from local band Fake ID. I can’t think of a better reason to dust off my dancing shoes (probably flats, because the campus is grassy) and put on some real clothing as a tribute to the Museum’s incredible fashion and textile collections. 

The events are designed for broad appeal. Williams, who steers the Museum’s events, says, “Our programs, lectures, parties, and events are tailored to New Canaan’s interests and needs. From historians of modern architecture to families with toddlers, there’s something here every month for pretty much everyone.”

New Canaan’s first tavern, home to old-timey good times. Photo: Meghan Gould, provided by the New Canaan Museum & Historical Society

The New Canaan Museum & Historical Society is more than just a collection of old-timey curiosities; it’s a hub celebrating the spirit of this place. Every aspect of daily life is made extraordinary, and New Canaan’s most extraordinary lives are made accessible. The museum actively solicits donations of artifacts and historical documents, ensuring the narrative of the town has plenty of supporting evidence to keep visitors engaged with who we used to be, who we are now, and, if the patterns of history are to play out on schedule, give us a sense of who we’re going to become. 

Because where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
But we probably do need parking spots. 


See you there!

3 thoughts on “Who Knew: New Canaan’s DNA

  1. Another fantastic and witty submission of “Who Knew’ that I always look forward to reading! The NCMHS is a town treasure we are lucky to have and this year’s Spring celebration on May 31 will be a fun event and exiting to see the new exhibit. Thanks Laura!

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