Prospect Park

Ask a historian: How has Prospect Park changed since the 1860s?

November 12, 2019 John B. Manbeck
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Elisabeth from Prospect Heights asked: “What communities existed before in Prospect Park?”

We don’t know too much, Elisabeth, with the exceptions of two mansions: the Willink Mansion and the Litchfield Villa, which still exists. The land had previously been the old Cortelyou estate from the days of the Dutch. Prospect Park land was not occupied the way Central Park was.

John Willink built his family mansion in 1835. After his death, the house was abandoned and then moved close to Flatbush Avenue. The name survives today as the Willink entrance to the park and the Willink comfort station built in 1912.

Edwin Litchfield, a lawyer, investor and railroad financier, built his Italianate family home and stables on today’s park land in 1857, naming it Grace Hill after his wife. Heavily involved in the planning of Prospect Park, he incorporated his home into the park property — for a price. In 1883, the estate was a designated headquarters for park personnel, which it still remains. The stables became a conservatory until they was demolished in 1955.

Others who lived on today’s park property resided in rented shacks and shanties. When construction of the park began in 1860, they were “quietly removed” through eminent domain, according to official records. The private Quaker Cemetery remained within the park lands. The park opened in 1867; it was completed by 1873.

Without more concrete information, it might be more interesting to list the structures added to the park, many of which have not survived.

While Prospect Park today resembles a natural oasis, its hills, lawns, lakes, waterfalls and forests are planned and manmade. State legislation passed in 1859 authorized the construction of parks in Mount Prospect Park. The name today refers to only the small park behind the Central Brooklyn Public Library while the proper park became simply Prospect Park. Other parks were planned for Ridgewood, Bay Ridge and New Lots.

In addition, a park in Brooklyn Heights was designated within the borders of Remsen, Furman, Montague and Montague Terrace. Today that vicinity is occupied by the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, with Brooklyn Bridge Park along Furman Street.

Preliminary Prospect Park plans proposed a refectory as an inn and Lookout Hill as a plateau for carriages to park and enjoy the surroundings. A playground had a croquet lawn and a maze, but an observation tower was eliminated. Archery was practiced on Long Meadow.

Due to interruptions from the Civil War, construction didn’t start until the mid-1860s with the Grecian Shelter, the Diary Farmhouse and the Well House, which supplied water for the artificial lakes and for the cattle and sheep who grazed in Sheep Meadow, until the parks commissioner banned the grazing. The well was closed but reopened in 2017 as a composting toilet in a restroom. In 1872, the park imported urinals from Glasgow, for the “men’s closet.”

The Music Stand in the Concert Grove with a pavilion and a house, erected in 1872, was a popular site until it was demolished in 1960. The Wollman Skating Rink took the Concert Grove and also removed Music Island from the lake; the island was restored in 2012. More changes began when the LeFrak Center eliminated the Wollman Rink in 2013 and the Esplanade was restored in 2012. The Music Pagoda had burned in 1968. A Yacht Club House for model boats rose by the lake in 1900 but burned in 1956. The neoclassical Peristyle arrived in 1904. By 1905, construction began for a new Boathouse for full-size rowboats and canoes to replace the original one. In the 1990s, more restoration was repeated.

The Tennis House arrived in 1910 (renovated in 2017) and the 1777 Lefferts House left Flatbush for Prospect Park in 1918; it was renovated in 2016. The 1855 Toll House which sat on Flatbush Avenue was moved inside the park in 1925. In 1927, the Picnic House was enlarged and in 1932, a replica of Mt. Vernon appeared in the park to celebrate George Washington’s 200th birth anniversary but disappeared after the occasion. The zoo, now the Prospect Park Wildlife Conservation Center, was proposed as a Zoological Garden but originally opened in 1890 as the Menagerie; it was renamed a zoo in 1935 when the Seal Pool and Elephant House opened, with support from Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

The Thatched Shelter, designed by Calvert Vaux, burned in 1937. In 1939, a new Bandshell replaced the Music Stand and a Carousel from Coney Island was added in 1949. The latter was replaced in 1974 and again in 1989.

Clay Lancaster, who also documented Brooklyn Heights, wrote the “Prospect Park Handbook” which details much of this history. The park was declared a New York City Historic Landmark in 1975.

Ask a Historian is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian. To find answers to your questions about our fair borough and its history, fill out the form below. 

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  1. Trevor Harris

    Quaker adherents were critical to the creation of Prospect Park. This, the
    favorite of all the large park assignments of Olmstead and Vaux (including
    even Central Park, Manhattan), explains the park’s Quaker Cemetery, a
    condition of the sale of lands that which we know today as Prospect
    Park. Important names buried in the Quaker cemetery are Montgomery
    Clift and namer of the Boerum Hill neighborhood Helen Buckler, formerly
    238 Dean Street.