FYBI: How did Willink Hill get its name?
How did Prospect Park’s Willink Hill get its name?
— Henk Willink, Doetinchem, The Netherlands
Long before the completion of Prospect Park in 1875, the area was sparsely populated by some of the original inhabitants: The Dutch. Even though the English captured and occupied New Amsterdam in 1664, the Dutch — including Gov. Pieter Stuyvesant — remained, mostly in Brooklyn.
The name Willink was not that unusual. A Willink from Germany settled in Savannah, Georgia, where he built the first ironclad warship for the Confederate Navy. The Brooklyn Willinks came from Amsterdam, Holland.
In 1804, Willem and Hester Willink arrived in the New World, settled in Clymer, N.Y., and formed the Holland Land Company. Willink, New York, was named for him. A banker, he invested in the Louisiana Purchase.
His son, Johan (later John) Willink, evidently impressed by reports of America, followed to the Town of Flatbush in 1835. He married Cornelia Ludlow, worked in New York as a broker and built their home atop a hill in Flatbush that they named Willink Hill. They christened their mansion Bloemen Heuvel — or Flower Hill — after an estate in Holland. By 1850, Cornelia’s mother, her sister Elizabeth and several employees also lived in the mansion.
The Willink mansion, enclosed by a high iron fence, occupied future park land. Located near the intersection of the independent towns of Brooklyn and Flatbush, the mansion stood near the home of Gertrude Lott Lefferts Vanderbilt, a writer, who detailed the reclusive life of the eccentric family next door. Vanderbilt described the solitary life of the Willinks who never opened their windows and were protected by two vicious guard dogs they kept in the basement.
John died in a carriage accident in Flatbush in 1852. He and his wife are buried in Trinity Church cemetery in Manhattan, according to Sarah Quick, reference archivist at Brooklyn Public Library. After the death of John Willink, the family built a hotel on an adjacent plot of land which they named the Willink House. However, it failed.
The family died with no heirs.
Around this time, James T. Stranahan promoted purchasing of property for a proposed Brooklyn park to be designed and constructed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, but the Civil War interfered with its construction. It didn’t open until 1867.
The abandoned mansion attracted curious sightseers. Inside, reminiscent of Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” they found cobwebs, trunks of clothing, still crated furniture, a closet of unused brooms, fine silver and expensive furniture according to several stories in Brownstoner. Even the hill that the mansion sat on was leveled for the park, although the name survives on maps.
In 1878 the Willink mansion was moved close to Flatbush Avenue to become the Melrose Hotel, a popular destination for tourists to Coney Island and businessmen, not to be confused with Melrose Manor and Park near today’s Parkside Avenue.
In the same year, a station for passengers of the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Railroad opened to whisk passengers from Prospect Park to the oceanside with its steam locomotives. The intersection of Flatbush and Ocean avenues and Malbone Street (now Empire Boulevard) became a popular transfer point.
Sutter’s Melrose Hotel, as it was later known, aged and lost its panache, replaced by a tawdry reputation of lawlessness. In 1903, a Dr. Erastus Houghton of Park Place, assisted by a private detective, traced his wife to a hotel room there and, subsequently, divorced her.
In February 1909, Harry Pope, a local politician and saloon owner from Williamsburg, checked into the Melrose with Bessie Schroeder, not his wife, according to the Brooklyn Eagle. They stayed in the hotel for several days; in the afternoon of the third day, Bessie stumbled down the stairs, shot in her lung. Then another shot, and Harry was dead. Police determined that Harry, in desperate financial straits, decided to kill them both. Bessie, however, lived.
The Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1910 that the Melrose Hotel stood in the way of progress and had been sold to be replaced with an apartment hotel. But fate hadn’t finished yet. In June 1911, John Cassidy, a Parks Department employee, and Charles Hand, a police officer, ended at the Melrose for a night of drinking and then checked into a room. An hour later, Hand summoned the desk man accusing Cassidy of stealing his watch and wallet. They found Cassidy on the fire escape unconscious and bleeding; he died in the hospital. An investigation charged Hand with murder. But other accusations might not have appeared in a family newspaper.
By 1915, the Melrose Hotel became a bicycle shop, then a riding academy and an automobile garage. In 1916 both the Melrose/Willink building and the railroad station disappeared. Eventually, the MTA Prospect Park subway station replaced them.
The name survives. The Willink Entrance to Prospect Park, a classical design, was created by McKim, Mead & White and remains the second busiest entrance to Prospect Park. Two huge pillars frame it, although the light globes intended for the tops were never installed. A comfort station nearby also carries the Willink name.
However, tragedy revisited the intersection in 1918 with the Malbone Street subway accident in which over 100 passengers died. But that’s another story.
— For Your Brooklyn Information answers your questions about our fair borough and its history. Please submit questions to [email protected]
FYBI is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian