Bonnet House

Ft. Lauderdale Beach

On Sunrise Blvd. near the beach, we saw a sign for Bonnet House. No one we asked about it knew what it was, so one day we took a walk and explored the grounds. It was an peaceful oasis in the hustle and bustle of concrete and glass. Tours are offered by a staff of most helpful volunteers.

The story starts in Chicago. In 1893, the World's Columbian Exposition was under way. Hugh Taylor Birch, a wealthy Chicagoan, decided that he wanted to escape the crowds descending into Chicago. A friend of his, Henri Flagler, helped him arrange for a boat and he sailed down the east coast of Florida from Titusville. He got as far as Port Everglades where he ran into a storm and sought shelter in what is now Port Everglades. He found the area to be spectacular. Later, he purchased several miles of shoreline around the Ft. Lauderdale area.

As a young man, Frederic Clay Bartlett, son of the True Value Hardware founder, went to that same World's Fair and became so impressed with the beautiful architecture and art at the Fair that he decided to study art in Europe. When he returned to Chicago, he worked on several commissioned pieces as a designer and muralist. He met and married the daughter of Hugh Taylor Birch, who gave them 55 acres of Florida barrier island wilderness for a wedding present.

Bonnet House was designed and built by Bartlett starting in 1919 and continuing for twenty years.The name comes from the Bonnet Lily, that perched on top of alligators heads when they came up for air. The house is set around a central courtyard with verandas filled with artwork.

Through the years, the Bartletts took many trips around the world and also collected art from many of these places which you can see all around the house. Probably his finest collection was from the period of impressionism and post impressionism which was donated to the Art Institute of Chicago, know as the Helen Birch Bartlett Collection. It was given to the Museum after Helen's death. He and his father-in-law were on the board of Directors of the Museum and so the story goes the museum wasn't that interested in the pieces. They included Picasso's Blue Guitarist, Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Grand Jetee, several Van Gogh and Latrec paintings just to name a few.

In 1931, six years after Helen's death, Bartlett married Evelyn Fortune Lilly, who divorced Indianapolis's Eli Lilly. Frederic and Evelyn created the unique blend of art and whimsy that delight us about the house. Frederic's many paintings line the walls and Evelyn also became an artist of quality. Frederic died in 1953 and Evelyn donated the estate to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983.

She wintered at the house until her death in 1997 at an age of 109. Evelyn's elixir for a long life seemed to be Rum, lime juice, and maple syrup from Vermont.

Through the years the surrounding area was built up. In the 30's a nightclub called the Monkey Club brought in squirrel monkeys from Brazil which were kept in cages. One night the club caught on fire and the owner freed the monkeys. The descendants are still roaming the grounds.