Published: June 17, 2015
Bonnet House eastern façade. —David Warren Photography photo
BY DENYSE CUNNINGHAM
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — Named for the bonnet lily, the Bonnet House’s story starts with Hugh Taylor Birch, a wealthy lawyer and real estate investor from Chicago who came to Fort Lauderdale in the late 1890s and began to buy undeveloped land on the barrier island along the Atlantic Ocean. His daughter, Helen, shared her father’s love of the rugged Florida wilderness and visited him in the winter months. She was a musician, composer and poet who spent the rest of the year traveling in upper class society.
She married millionaire art collector and artist Frederic Clay Bartlett. As a wedding gift, her father gave the couple the land that would become the site of Bonnet House, an eclectic plantation-style home built in 1920. Tragically, Helen died in 1925.
Six years later, Frederic married Evelyn Fortune Lily and this whimsical estate became their winter retreat. Evelyn Bartlett was also an artist and their unconventional personal touches are evident throughout the property.
After Frederic died in 1953, Evelyn continued to winter at the estate. Fearing the encroaching development, in 1983 she gave the property to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. She died two months before her 110th birthday in 1997.
Bonnet House courtyard
The main house, all of 7,220 square feet, is situated on a coral ridge above a fresh water lagoon that reflects the house and the stately royal palms which line it. Dotting the site are whimsical small buildings and structures, including a dry marble fountain (used today as an altar for weddings held on the grounds), a shell museum and an orchid house. The main house surrounds a formal central courtyard featuring a fountain, coral rock walkways, exotic forms of vegetation, carvings, sculptures and a whimsical and colorful aviary.
The house itself was designed by Frederic Bartlett as a rendition of an airy Caribbean plantation-style house but the eclectic architectural style was influenced by his extensive world travels. It is an artist’s house created by and for artists.
Bartlett used indigenous materials in the construction of the house, including coral rock, cypress, Dade County pine and concrete blocks made onsite from beach sand. The house was designed for tropical beachfront living and features long verandahs facing the ocean to catch the cool breezes. The 35-acre estate rests on the barrier island with the Intracoastal Waterway on the west side of the property and the Atlantic Ocean on the east.
Visitors to the estate can see ceiling murals, faux painting on the walls and floors and decorative shellwork. The Bartletts collected many eclectic pieces of art and antiques in their world travels. Pieces from Germany, Persia, France, Italy, Cuba, England and many other countries grace the home. Evelyn was particularly fond of fine china. The Bartletts’ own paintings are prominently featured in the collection.
Today the house is nestled among miles of sprawling beachfront development. The property is a house museum and tropical garden operated by the nonprofit Bonnet House, Inc. It is one of the few complete homes and studios of a recognized American artist open to the public. Tours run Tuesday through Sunday.
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