Above: Lindstrom at the Historical Society, where one room is set up like an old apothecary.
Janet Lindstrom, who has had a bird’s-eye view of New Canaan history for more than thirty years, is about to step down as executive director of the New Canaan Historical Society. Yet even after she leaves, her work will carry on in New Canaan. Janet has led efforts to preserve the Little Red School House on Carter Street, the Gores Pavilion in Irwin Park and many colonial and modern structures in between. During her tenure, Janet revived the Modern House Tour, began the Ice Cream Social, and served as the town’s resident history expert long before there was Google.
You started as director in 1985. How old are you?
Do I have to answer that?
I’m in my eighties.
Do you ever think, Wow, I’m pretty lucky to have this job?
The New Canaan Historical Society is everybody’s attic. So many people come in to talk and they have such stories to tell. They bring so many wonderful articles of clothing. We have a fantastic collection. When you go through all the costumes, you have the opportunity to learn. It can be exciting. Often, some of the costumes brought to us have been with a particular family for years and years. Each one has a story.
What’s with your phone number? It’s 966-1776. Is that a coincidence?
A lot of people miss that. Jerry Selinger is responsible for the number. He was a pillar in the Historical Society and he founded the Historic District. Jerry happened to know a woman in New Canaan who had that number and he bugged her for it until she finally gave in. When he left New Canaan due to ill health, he was in his nineties; he cried because he didn’t want to go. We have a red leather chair in the clock room. After he did all his work, he’d sit down in that chair, smoke his pipe and go to sleep. As long as I’m still here, we’ll keep that chair in that location.
Tell us about the history of New Canaan.
New Canaan was a farming town, so one of the things we’re allowed to protect is the barns. And then we were a shoe manufacturing place—it was almost like a cottage industry—but that went out after the Civil War. The one thing we’re truly well-known for are the mid-century modern homes.
How many of the moderns remain in New Canaan?
About ninety or more are still here in town.
What is something about the moderns that people might not know?
People don’t know Landis Gores that well. He did the Pavilion for the Irwins, which we restored. Architects like Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei and other big names of the day were all there to help open the Pavilion. It was amazing. Landis was a partner of Philip Johnson, and the supervising architect. He had contracted polio. So at the time the Pavilion was built, you could get through the doors with a wheelchair.
How did so many fine architects end up in New Canaan?
One of them came to live here; I believe it was Eliot Noyes. His friends then came to visit. The story goes that Victor Christ-Janer and his family were driving on the Merritt when they stopped to let their cat out of the car for a break. The cat ran away, so they searched the town and discovered they liked New Canaan. Sometimes you have to wonder, was that really the way it happened?
Wow did you get here?
I moved to New Canaan in 1958 with my husband Gary, an architect. At that time there was a great camaraderie among architects. Victor would have a little soiree on Fridays and they all got to know each other; so many of them worked for different people. At one time many of the offices were in one building that was owned by Jerry Silverberg on Elm Street, and a lot of them worked for Eliot Noyes on Main Street.
Any disappointments during your tenure at the Historical Society?
Victor’s own house. We worked so hard to save that, but it was torn down.
What was the last thing that surprised you about New Canaan history?
The other day someone wanted to know if we had a map of the paths at the Bristow Bird Sanctuary. We have a file on it. The person said they understood there was a little house near a big pond for skating. We’re trying to find out if that’s true. There are things we learn every day and it usually occurs because of somebody’s question.
Do many people research genealogy here?
Many, many people plan their summer vacations to come to New Canaan and do original research on their families. One thing they’re very interested in are the records of the rural cemeteries in New Canaan, with all the names. Families used to bury their loved ones in their backyards. Many people had the gravestones moved to Lakeview Cemetery, but there is a question about whether the bodies were relocated. That is a big thing now. It’s fascinating!
Where is your favorite place to hang out in town?
It’s a place that’s going to be taken down, and that’s the Roger Sherman. Everybody has celebrated special events there. We’ve had some famous people speak here and that’s where we always put them up.
Where is your favorite place in town to sit and ponder?
At home. I live on two acres. If I’m going to sit and be in the sun, or walk, or garden, that’s where I love to do it. Everybody is surprised to learn that I don’t live in an antique house. They say, “but you run the Historical Society!” The truth is, I live in a modern house designed by my husband, who died in 1980. He did mostly schools and libraries, but he did some homes as well.
What might surprise some people about the Historical Society?
Many visitors will come in and say, “Wow, look what you have here!” For example, we hold a card on almost every person who’s lived in New Canaan, a card with the resident’s name, the names of his or her parents, when he or she died. On the back of the card we have biographical material if the resident was in the paper. I can’t tell you how many authors come in and use our files for their research, and they thank us in their books. We are having trouble keeping up with this, though, because of a lack of volunteers.
NEW CANAAN HISTORICAL SOCIETY
13 Oenoke Ridge Road | (203) 966-1776 | nchistory.org
Long before Instagram, the town of New Canaan was captured in black and white. Janet Lindstrom shared these photos from the Historical Society’s archives.
TOP TO BOTTOM: It appears that parking was not a big problelm in New Canaan back in 1925, as this photo of the intersection at Elm and Main shows; this building stood on Main St. back in 1919; the town’s youth hit the books at the Rock School in the year 1895.