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Brookline developer Knapp went from rags to riches to ruin

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Beaconsfield-Terrace-Frances-Exterior
Frances Terrace, named for Eugene Knapp's wife, was completed in 1889. David L. Ryan/Globe staff

Towering over the parking lot of Brookline’s Star Market is a fieldstone and yellow-brick castle. When viewed from Beacon Street, the Flemish crenellations of a second castle peak over the roof of the first. Anyone walking up the hill will find a third castle on Tappan Street, the most showy in the development. There are seven of these fairy-tale buildings in the neighborhood, the original structures known collectively as Beaconsfield Terraces, and their history is every bit as grandiose as their design.

To describe the Beaconsfield Terraces’ cluttered combination of turrets, arches, and dormers in formal architectural grammar would take pages. A real estate agent might stop at “chateauesque,’’ but to do so would undersell their unmistakably urban characteristics: their subtle segmentation into town houses, their patented central-heating schemes, their proximity to one of the oldest functioning electric trolley lines in America.

When Eugene Knapp, a wool importer, built the first Beaconsfield Terrace in 1889, Brookline was a town of farms and vacation homes. By the early 20th century, it was a dense streetcar suburb.

The pace of development, even by today’s standards, was exceptional. Boston had been swallowing adjacent towns whole, annexing Roxbury in 1868, Dorchester in 1870, and Brighton and West Roxbury (encompassing Jamaica Plain and Roslindale) in 1874. City engineers were literally moving mountains into the Back Bay, creating an elegant gateway to Brookline where a mill dam and a dump once festered. The abundance of fresh land and lack of antitrust law, workplace safety regulations, or a minimum wage made 19th-century Boston an ambitious developer’s playpen.

It is only in this context that a wool importer’s plan for a seven-castle subdivision of his apple orchard — complete with 6-acre private park, on-call horse stable, tennis court, and a flexible casino space to house a bowling alley, greenhouse, billiard room, and 200-seat theater — could even begin to resemble a sensible real estate investment.

From rags to riches

Eugene Richter Knapp was born on Nantucket during an economic depression. The Great Fire of 1846 burned, by conservative estimates, 400 buildings in the heart of Nantucket’s commercial center, a death knell for an island economy that was already suffering from overwhaling and competition with deeper-harbored New Bedford. Knapp’s father, a Unitarian minister at the island’s Second Congregational Meeting House, knew immediately that the steadiest job of his career would soon be lost.

As Knapp’s father described in his autobiography, the family left Nantucket in 1850 and arrived in Cambridge impoverished, with “irregular and poorly paid employment, house rented, but nothing to put in it except wife and seven children.’’ In a cruel twist of fate, the ship carrying the family’s possessions hit a shoal on its way to Boston, taking on water and ruining everything they owned.

Knapp’s father regularly relocated the family as he preached a theology of social justice and individualism seemingly more concerned with the stimulation of independent thought than the maintaining of his pulpit. When he decided the financial pressure of supporting his family had compromised his ecclesiastical integrity, Knapp’s father “distributed’’ his “younger children among various friends.’’

Three decades later, Eugene Knapp resurfaced in the historical record as a self-made man of some conviction. According to the Boston Daily Globe, Knapp, still living in Cambridge, had become “one of the most expert wool buyers in the country.’’ Supposedly he “lived and entertained lavishly’’ and “often boasted that he had crossed the Atlantic 53 times and the Pacific 20 times’’ on business. The Brookline Chronicle suspected he was a millionaire.

Married with three children (and two more on the way), Knapp left Cambridge in 1880 and purchased what was known as “the old Mansion house’’ at the corner of Beacon and Tappan streets in Brookline (where Star Market is now). His idyllic country days were numbered.

In 1884, the town announced its plan to replace its muddy highway, Beacon Street, with a Frederick Law Olmsted-designed boulevard with two carriage lanes, two bridle paths, four rows of elm trees, and a trolley line. (The width was later reduced.)

Many were eager to see the Back Bay’s rapid development spill into Brookline, including one Henry Whitney, who had over the course of a decade purchased more than half the land in Brookline adjacent to Beacon Street, including six parcels that came to all but surround Knapp’s homestead.

Knapp responded with a surprising eagerness to upend his country lifestyle and purchased land from Whitney for a large-scale housing project he hoped to develop in his own backyard.

‘An experiment in domestic economy’

Unlike Eugene Knapp, Henry Whitney was a man born of immense privilege. When plans for Brookline’s trolley were blocked by a horse-car company claiming monopoly rights on the Boston stretch of Beacon Street, Whitney simply purchased the company. Then he hammered the West End Consolidation Act through the state Legislature, consolidated 20 horse-car companies as the West End Street Railway Co., replaced their fleets with an overhead electric trolley system, and built one of the largest electrical plants in America to power it. He also donated half of the land used for Beacon Street’s widening, which amounted to a mere sliver of his Brookline real estate holdings. When construction began, Whitney matched Brookline’s budget for the project dollar for dollar.

While Whitney was aggressively laying the rail network that would become the backbone of the MBTA, Knapp was developing a transit-oriented housing model. Knapp chose Carl Fehmer as the Beaconsfield Terraces’ architect — another deliberate association with the Back Bay, where Fehmer had designed more than 30 residences. In Brookline, liberated from the Back Bay’s spatial constraints, Fehmer attempted the most unconventional design of his career: Frances Terrace, named for Knapp’s wife and completed in 1889. By 1892, the bulk of the development was complete, including the casino.

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The turret of Marguerite Terrace. A two-unit town house with eight bedrooms in this building sold for $4,000,000 in 2016. —David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

At the Beaconsfield Terraces, Knapp intended to combine rural tranquility with the urbane services of a Manhattan cooperative — “keeping the door-steps and side-walks washed and clean, blacking the boots, putting the clothes-lines out once a week, removing the ash-barrels for the city men,’’ as was reported in an 1894 feature in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. This “experiment in domestic economy,’’ as New England Magazine described it in January 1892, is considered by some to be America’s first suburban condominium complex.

Though Knapp’s development is aesthetically a far cry from the modern subdivision, his target demographic was spot on: commuting professionals who desired an escape from the city without the household responsibilities of the country. To entice such professionals, Knapp operated a schedule of horse-drawn “tallyhos’’ to “unparalleled scenes’’ of nature that were, unsurprisingly, in the vicinity of his Beaconsfield Terraces.

From riches to rags

Judging by the residents listed in the 1900 Census — a jewelry dealer (William Shreve, to be specific), a bank president, and an MIT professor, to name only a handful — one would assume Knapp’s efforts were successful. But the biographical details of the rest of his life belie a bleaker financial ledger.

Knapp lost his fortune in the Panic of 1893, and in 1898, he sold the entire Beaconsfield Terraces development to Henry Whitney for $500,000. The Brookline Chronicle later reported that whatever profit Knapp had pocketed, if any, was lost in the Panic of 1903.

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Henry Whitney replaced the casino at the Beaconsfield Terraces with this 200-room apartment hotel. —Public Library of Brookline

Whitney’s immediate destruction of the Beaconsfield Terraces’ casino suggests that the lavish amenities Knapp devised were more of a liability than an asset. In the casino’s place, Whitney built a 200-room apartment hotel and hired Knapp as its manager. Knapp and his family subsequently moved to Shuttleworth Terrace (not one of the original Beaconsfield Terraces, but an addition that Knapp began and Whitney later finished on Regent Circle).

Even after his demotion from proprietor to manager, Knapp remained an inventive entrepreneur. In 1905, he secured a patent for an energy-saving central heating system (its first incarnation, at a theater in Boston, had mixed results), but before he could find investors to commercialize his invention, Knapp was fired on account of “unsatisfactory services’’ and, after 25 years of stewardship, promptly vacated Beaconsfield Terraces.

On July 3, 1905, Knapp climbed the rails of a steamship bound for Portland, Maine, plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, and drowned. His obituary in the Brookline Chronicle reported: “When Mr. Knapp’s body was taken from the water by the steamer’s crew, letters were found in his pockets signed by occupants of the Beaconsfield Hotel expressing displeasure at the dismissal of Mr. Knapp as manager.

“A letter addressed to the captain of the steamer was found in the stateroom and with it a little cash and a note stating ‘All the money I have left.’ ’’

The legacy

If there is a silver lining to Knapp’s story, it can be found in today’s real estate pages. A two-unit town house with eight bedrooms in Marguerite Terrace (324 Tappan St.) sold for $4,000,000 in 2016. A five-bedroom town house in Frances Terrace (362 Tappan St.) is currently listed by AG-McEvoy Realty at $3,375,000. In total, Knapp is responsible for 74 of these town houses, no two of them identical.

This town house in Frances Terrace is on the market for $3,375,000. —David L. Ryan/Globe staff

It’s hard to imagine that Knapp would be consoled by forgone profit, but the dense suburb that came to flesh out his vision — with restaurants, shops, bars, offices, churches, synagogues, and schools — may have been a welcome sight. He may also have welcomed the news that the Beaconsfield Hotel burned in 1966 and that Whitney, a presumed multimillionaire, had died in 1923 with an estate worth only $1,221, according to his obituary in The New York Times.

Now more than ever, in the heat of a boom that calls for ever denser, greener, and more transit-friendly housing, we can appreciate the daring precedent Eugene Knapp set for the development of Greater Boston.

Ben Berke is a freelance journalist covering arts and urban development. Send comments to ben.berke@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @benjberke.