The House that Knapp Built

Historic homes and buildings are a key to our past. Walking through the streets of an old town and passing building facades that have stood the test of time can feel almost like traveling back in history. Sadly, over the years many significant buildings have been destroyed in the name of progress. Often the new structure is decorated with a plaque to explain what came before but bears no historical significance itself. Here in Rye, this struggle between preserving the past and building for the future is central to our everyday life. As I look to uncover the stories of Rye, I see many examples of treasures we have lost, but along with that are examples of a rich history preserved. This is how I found the Knapp House.

The Knapp House stands at 265 Rye Beach Avenue, on the corner of Milton Road. I initially noticed the Knapp House during my first fall living in Rye, when the tall maple trees shading this two-story, white colonial changed to a fiery orange, contrasting against the surrounding green trees and grass. While many neighboring houses are old as well, this one appears different in that it is true to its original form, an artifact from centuries past. As one historian noted, the Knapp House “seems to be many houses in one,” a claim that holds true both in describing the structure and in the fascinating stories of its owners.

Despite its rich history, it is really a stroke of luck that we have the Knapp House today. The house was granted landmark status in 1982, ten years before the Rye Historical Society bought the house from the Taylor family in 1992. The Taylor family wanted this house to become part of the Rye Historical Society, and for the Historical Society, the timing was right. With plans for expansion and limited space in the Square House, the Knapp House was an ideal acquisition. The purchase of the Knapp House and the subsequent restoration project are a fine example of how a community can come together to preserve and honor its history, turning an old house into a source of town pride and a tool to teach us about the past.

Built by Timothy Knapp in 1670 on the foundation of a two-room log cabin, the Knapp House is thought to be the oldest residential building in Westchester. Over its 350-year lifespan, it has only had four owners, as families passed the house down from one generation to the next. They added and repurposed rooms as the house changed hands, and acres of open land that had surrounded it in the days of the Knapps and the Halsteds changed over time into neighborhoods and a thriving community along Milton Road, a name that was originally Mill Town Road.

While many Rye residents who know of this house probably associate it with the names Knapp and Halsted, we do not have to go back hundreds of years to find fascinating figures residing here. During the early part of the 20thcentury, the Ford family owned the Knapp House. Bought by Simeon Ford in 1906 and owned by his family until 1969, the Fords used the home not only as a residence but also as a resource for their careers. It is during this era in the Knapp House that we see examples of how the architectural history of a home is connected to the narrative of its owners.

Simeon Ford was a famed after-dinner speaker and owner of the Grand Union Hotel in New York City. The Grand Union Hotel, located in convenient proximity to Grand Central Depot, enjoyed great popularity in the late 1800s and early 1900s until the extension of the rail lines and construction of Grand Central Terminal forced it to close its doors. While Ford lived with his wife, sons and daughter in the Knapp House, they cultivated a rich vegetable and flower garden, shipping the produce from Milton Harbor to his hotel in Manhattan.

t was Simeon Ford’s daughter Lauren who inherited her childhood home, and with respect for its history and a desire to make it her own, she added an artist’s studio, aviary and greenhouse. Lauren’s mother wrote children’s books and her childhood was rich in arts education from a young age. Having trained at the Art Students League in New York City, Lauren pursued her career as an artist in her Knapp House studio, using the house as the backdrop for her paintings of childhood memories.

While her contemporaries were moving toward abstraction, Lauren celebrated her small-town upbringing and religious beliefs in her work. She had a strong following and enjoyed great commercial success, with works in private collections as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Corcoran Gallery. Her art is not the only mark Lauren left; she was also the single mother of an adopted daughter who describes her as “exceedingly humble and very generous.” When Lauren left Rye in 1940, she maintained ownership of the home until 1969 when she sold it to her long-time tenants, the Taylors.

Lauren’s maintenance of the house and private sale to the Taylors was crucial in saving it from demolition or reconstruction. While the structure of the Knapp House has changed over time, at points suffering damage from fire and leaks, it has been cared for and restored in ways that uphold the history of the house and of our town. It is open to the public. Please stop by for a journey back in time.

 

Interested in the sources behind this story? Contact the Rye Historical Society for more information about the Knapp House. Contact Rye Historical Society


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