one of Savannah's more unique historic homes
Nestled in a peaceful corner of Savannah, Georgia’s historic downtown stands the lovely, cottage-style Willink House. Although overflowing with quintessential southern charm, the home’s significance stems not from its outer façade, but rather from its ties to Henry Willink and his contribution to the Confederate Navy, as well as its brief time as a school for African-American children. Today, the home represents Savannah’s antebellum past, while simultaneously forming part of progressive Black History in the South.
The Willink House was built by Savannah-born master carpenter Henry Frederick Willink Jr. (1825-1906). As the son of a German shipyard owner, he was exposed to the family business from a very young age, something that undoubtedly inspired him to one day open a shipyard of his own. Willink briefly attended Chatham Academy before leaving school to become an apprentice to his father, eventually moving to New York to further his experience in the field.
After nine years up north, learning the ins and outs of the industry, Willink was finally ready to return to his hometown and jump-start his enterprise. In 1851, with the help of his partner Alvin Miller, he established Willink & Miller, a large shipbuilding company.
At the beginning of the American Civil War (1861-1865), Willink & Miller, already a successful, reputable firm, geared its business towards constructing vessels for the Confederate States Navy.
The Confederacy depended on European shipyards to build large seafaring warships that could stand against the Union’s fleet. While the massive ships were being manufactured overseas, local shipyards were tasked with developing Richmond Class ironclads as part of a defensive strategy to protect the southern coast.
Stephen Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate Navy, summoned Willink to Virginia, where he was presented the Richmond model and urged to complete a similar construction in four months. Understaffed due to employees off fighting in the war, Willink agreed - although reluctantly - to the nearly-impossible deadline.
And so, under contract with the navy, Willink & Miller began building ironclads (like the CSS Savannah, the CSS Georgia, and the CSS Milledgeville) during the Civil War.
Curiously, the CSS Georgia - nicknamed “The Ladies’ Gunboat” was funded by the Ladies’ Gunboat Association, a group of women in Savannah, who, fearing the possibility of a coastal attack, collected 115,000 dollars in donations to finance the build. However, it was soon determined that its steam engines were too weak to take on the Savannah River tides, and the ship was employed as a floating battery, anchored near Old Fort Jackson.
Despite the immense effort put in by the firm to complete the ironclads in record time, the vessels - including those which had just launched - had to be burned and sunk in 1864 to prevent their capture by Union forces.
Once the conflict ended, Willink rebuilt his shipyard and began working on diverse maritime projects. Under contract with the U.S. Government, he removed obstructions placed in the Savannah River during the war, established the Southern Wrecking Co., a company for disposing of warships, and built a marine railway on Florida’s Hutchinson Island to support his thriving business.
Following the Civil War, Willink was also investigated by Federal authorities for treasonable activities. A faithful supporter of the Confederate Army, he remained candid and outspoken about his views of the Union and his loyalty to the South. His honesty impressed the Federal officer who admired the courage of a true southern rebel, and the case was dismissed.
From 1877 to 1881, Willink served as a Savannah Alderman for the municipal council, representing the interests of the city. He was passionate about his community and had a complete understanding of the challenges faced amongst the classes, characteristics that undoubtedly earned him the position.
Upon his return from New York in 1851, Willink began to purchase land and develop properties to convert into rental units for his employees. Several of the buildings that still stand in Savannah’s East State Street (like 418-420 and 422-424) were once home to his many workers.
Out of all the homes built by Henry Willink, his own home, the charming, 1,100 square-foot Cape-Cod-style cottage is the most notable. Aside from the accomplishments of its first owner, the newly restored, freshly preserved house is considered an essential part of Black History in Savannah, after it operated as a clandestine school for African-Americans.
For ten years, Willink lived in this charming house before selling it to an empathetic, passionate educator who secretly began teaching both enslaved and freed children in the home. According to locals, the teacher was a white woman who would encourage the students to complete their assignments by rewarding them with sweets.
Before slavery was abolished, teaching African-Americans was a criminal offense as slave owners feared that educated slaves could potentially organize an uprising. White southerners guilty of teaching African-Americans were subjected to hefty fines of 500 dollars and imprisonment.
Unfortunately, like many of the hush-hush schools in the city, this one was discovered, and the grief-stricken instructor had no choice but to leave Savannah.
The Willink House, formerly located at 231 Price Street, near Oglethorpe Avenue, was moved to a different part of town in the 1960s. At the time, the area surrounding Oglethorpe Avenue was being developed into commercial spaces and modern townhouses in which historic buildings, especially deteriorated ones, would stick out like a sore thumb.
Successful banker and Savannah native, Mills B. Lane, used his position as president of Citizens & Southern National Bank to finance the redevelopment of his hometown. It was Lane who moved Willink’s old dwelling to its current location on 426 East Saint Julian Street and initiated its restoration.
He was also granted permission by the city’s Park & Tree Department to renovate the nearby Warren Square, which, almost 200 years old by then, was begging for a makeover. The beautification process included repaving the quarter, introducing luscious landscaping, and renovating the nearby homes, making Lane the person responsible for the lovely appearance the Warren Square area has today.
The Willink House is currently privately owned. Although the home is not open to the public, strolling by the building is allowed. When catching a glimpse of this residence, please be mindful of the owners, and keep a safe distance. You can find it at 426 East Saint Julian Street.