The town is one of the wealthiest communities in the nation. In 2011, New Canaan was ranked 8th on CNN Money's list of the top-earning towns in the United States.
New Canaan has two Metro-North railroad stations: the New Canaan station and the Talmadge Hill station, both on the New Canaan Branch of the New Haven Line. Travel time to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan is approximately one hour.
In 1731, Connecticut's colonial legislature established Canaan Parish as a religious entity in northwestern Norwalk and northeastern Stamford. The right to form a Congregational church was granted to the few families scattered through the area. As inhabitants of Norwalk or Stamford, Canaan Parish settlers still had to vote, pay taxes, serve on juries, and file deeds in their home towns. Because Canaan Parish was not planned as a town, New Canaan, when incorporated in 1801, found itself without a central common, a main street or a town hall.
Until the Revolutionary War, New Canaan was primarily an agricultural community. After the war, New Canaan's major industry was shoe making. As New Canaan's shoe business gathered momentum early in the nineteenth century, instead of a central village, regional settlements of clustered houses, mill, and school developed into distinct district centers. Some of the districts were centered on Ponus Ridge, West Road, Oenoke Ridge, Smith Ridge, Talmadge Hill and Silvermine, a pattern which the village gradually outgrew.
With the 1868 advent of the railroad to New Canaan, many of New York City's wealthy residents discovered the quiet, peaceful area and built magnificent summer homes. Eventually, many of the summer visitors settled year-round, commuting to their jobs in New York City and creating the residential community that exists today.
Lewis Lapham, a founder of Texaco and great-grandfather of long-time Harper's Magazine editor Lewis H. Lapham, spent summers with his family at their estate that is now Waveny Park next to Talmadge Hill and the Merritt Parkway.
The "Harvard Five" and modern homes
New Canaan was an important center of the modern design movement from the late 1940s through roughly the 1960s, when about 80 modern homes were built in town. About 20 have been torn down since then.
"During the late 1940s and 50s, a group of students and teachers from the Harvard Graduate School of Design migrated to New Canaan ... and rocked the world of architectural design", according to an article in PureContemporary.com, an online architecture design magazine. "Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, John M. Johansen and Eliot Noyesknown as the Harvard Fivebegan creating homes in a style that emerged as the complete antithesis of the traditional build. Using new materials and open floor plans, best captured by Johnson's Glass House, these treasures are being squandered as buyers are knocking down these architectural icons and replacing them with cookie-cutter new builds."
"Other architects, well known (Frank Lloyd Wright, for example) and not so well known, also contributed significant modern houses that elicited strong reactions from nearly everyone who saw them and are still astonishing today ... New Canaan came to be the locus of the modern movement's experimentation in materials, construction methods, space, and form", according to an online description of The Harvard Five in New Canaan: Mid-Century Modern Houses, by William D. Earls.
The film The Ice Storm (1997) shows many of New Canaan's modern houses, both inside and out.