Past and Present: Flatbush at Ocean Avenue

Flatbush at Ocean Avenue. 1915 Photo: Museum of the City of New York

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Where would we architecture and history nuts be without old photographs? They are such a fascinating look into a vanished world, often quite familiar in many ways, yet totally alien. Our city has changed so much in a hundred years, but some places haven’t changed much at all. Once in a while, while perusing the collections in our historical societies and libraries, we come upon a scene that makes us wonder, “Where in the world was this?” Today’s Past photograph is one of those.

“This” is the intersection where Ocean Avenue begins, at the edge of Prospect Park, on Flatbush Avenue. Ocean Avenue is in the front of the photograph, running past the Melrose Hotel, at the rear, and Flatbush runs past on the left. Off to the left, out of the picture, would be the beginning of Malbone Street, now Empire Boulevard. These two buildings were not really related to each other, but are forgotten parts of Flatbush’s past.

The unusual and quite wonderful octagonal shaped building on the left housed automobiles when this photograph was taken in 1915, but started out as the Prospect Park station house, built in 1878 for passengers of the Brooklyn, Flatbush & Coney Island Railroad. Day trippers on their way to the beaches and resorts of Coney Island came to this station to board the trains that would take them out of the city to the cooling breezes and posh hotels of the shore.

This entire plot of land was part of the Willnick estate, a Flatbush Dutch family whose estate was built here in 1835. The patriarch of the Willnick family was an old banker from Holland who married a younger wife, who was a Lott, and built his house here on the border of Brooklyn and Flatbush, both independent towns at the time. This land was hilly then, and he perched his mansion at the top of the hill, and then enclosed the estate within a high iron fence. The Willnick place was next door to Gertrude Lott Lefferts Vanderbilt’s house. Mrs. Vanderbilt was a writer, and penned several books about Flatbush that are quite enlightening as to life here in the mid-1800s, and she took note of her rather stand-offish and reclusive neighbors, to whom she was distantly related.

Gertrude wrote that the Willnicks, along with the wife’s mother and sister, never came out of the house. She said they had crates of furniture they never opened or unpacked, they never opened the windows, and they had two vicious guard dogs they kept in the basement, to which they fed raw meat. After a few years, the mother died, and Mr. Willnick was seen riding about in his carriage. One day he rode out to Flatbush Avenue, near Ocean, set to go out on a ride, when the horse spooked and he was thrown from his seat into the street and killed.

His wife and her sister became more reclusive and eccentric. They stayed behind their gates except to occasionally go to Trinity Church in Manhattan. They were sometimes hard to deal with, like when they bought a plot of land adjoining theirs, facing Flatbush, and built a hotel, called the Willnick House. It could have been successful, except they wouldn’t let their manager run the place, they kept interfering, he quit, and it closed. Other times, they would be very generous, unexpectedly giving money to strangers, or buying a merchant’s entire stock.

After several more years, Mrs. Willnick died, leaving her sister alone in the huge mansion on the hill. She stayed there for years, occasionally coming down to Willnick House and staying in a suite of rooms reserved for her. The Inn had re-opened under different management. One morning, the staff came into her rooms at Willnick House and found that the old woman had died in her sleep. There were no heirs, and the estate, which had been clouded in mystery, was opened to settle the estate.

The once private mansion was thrown open to anyone who could wrangle their way inside, and the curious flocked to see the house on the hill. They found a hoarder’s paradise. Long festoons of cobwebs stretched across every surface. There were dozens of brooms in a closet, none ever used. There were objects and collections of no worth whatsoever mixed with fine silver, expensive furniture and accessories. There were trunks of clothing, all of it outdated and out of style, much of it never worn. Some crated furniture had never been opened, and sat in the hallways gathering dust. Every drawer was opened, every closet explored, and the contents of the building were sold down to those brooms.

Even the hill upon which the house stood was taken away, the ground leveled, and the entire estate dismantled. Part of the land became part of Prospect Park, and the entrance near Ocean Avenue was named for the Willnick family. If it weren’t for that naming, the Willnick name would have been lost to Brooklyn forever. The land where the house stood was needed for the tracks for the railroad, and in 1878, the Willnick mansion was moved to stand in the lot at the edge of Ocean Avenue. It became a hotel called the Melrose Hotel, and that is the building on the right side of the photo. It was quite a fall for the mansion.

The Melrose Hotel became a well-known Flatbush institution, and the grand old manor became a popular place for tourists to stay, as well as businessmen. It enjoyed a good reputation for a while, and then seemed to be the place for a lot of shady goings-on. I’ll be writing more about that at another time. It’s fascinating, gossipy stuff, with fallen women, dastardly deeds and murder.

The unusual and beautiful Brooklyn, Flatbush & Coney Island depot was abandoned when the new Brooklyn Rapid Transit train station was moved down the block, and the building became a bicycle shop, a riding academy, and finally, an automobile garage. The railroad had always kept possession of the property. In 1910, the expansion of the subway system spelled the disappearance of both of these buildings. Tracks were being dug underground for the new subways, and the streets were being widened and slightly rerouted. The old train depot and the old mansion, now hotel, were in the way.

The Brooklyn Eagle announced in 1910 that the Melrose Hotel had been sold, and the new owner planned to tear it down to build an apartment hotel overlooking Prospect Park. The old house sat empty for six years. In 1916, the paper announced that the old train depot was being demolished as they wrote, and that the Melrose Hotel would follow, all to allow for the subway construction, and the new train station at the edge of the park. If the new apartment hotel was ever built, it’s no longer standing either.

Today, the lot has the subway station, a parking lot, some dorky park signage, and not much else. Although it was not planned that way, the Willnick Entrance to Prospect Park, designed by McKim, Mead & White, is the second busiest entrance to the park. There is also a Willnick comfort station nearby. Thanks to the park, the Willnick name lives. Now you know a little bit more about them. GMAP

Flatbush at Ocean Avenue. 1915 photo: Museum of the City of New York

Flatbush at Ocean Avenue. 1915 Photo: Museum of the City of New York

Photo: Google Maps

Photo: Google Maps

Willnick estate on the hill. Undated painting. Brooklyn Public Library

Willink estate on the hill. Undated painting. Brooklyn Public Library

Flatbush at Ocean Ave. Map: New York Public Library

Flatbush at Ocean Ave. Map: New York Public Library

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