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The Bonnet House, Part 1

Every once in a while you come across a real treasure in the least expected places. Charles Kuralt delighted us all as he discovered and shared such treasures in his Peabody-Award-winning "On the Road" segments for CBS. Located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida is just such a treasure — the Bonnet House. It has quite an interesting history, so please allow me to start at the beginning.

(Pillars outside entrance. Note the resemblance to an Egyptian monolith.)

Hugh Taylor Birch was an early settler to this area who, in the late 1800s, purchased some 3 1/2 miles of beachfront property along what is now the north end of Fort Lauderdale beach. (Part of that property has been preserved as Hugh Taylor Birch State Park just to the north of the Bonnet House.)

By the time of the purchase, the property had already witnessed 4,000 years of Florida history. A shell midden left by the Tequesta people indicates that human activity on the site dates back to 2,000 B.C. while further archaeological evidence suggests that the grounds saw one of the first sites of Spanish contact with the New World.

(Entrance. Note the enormous fish at the top of the wall above the door.)

Bonnet House's modern history began when Birch gave the property as a wedding gift to his daughter Helen and her husband, successful Chicago artist Frederic Clay Bartlett in 1919. The newlyweds began construction of Bonnet House in 1920, eager for a winter retreat where Frederic could pursue his artwork and Helen could compose music and poetry.

(Central courtyard.)

But this was not to be an ordinary home for the leisure class because Bartlett decided to design it himself rather than having it designed by an architect. And the difference in the appearance of a home designed by an artist is striking.

(Fountain in the middle of the courtyard.)

Unfortunately, tragedy struck in 1925 when Helen died from breast cancer. Frederic's visits to Bonnet House then became sporadic until 1931 when he married Evelyn Fortune Lilly (formerly married to Eli Lilly, founder of the well-known pharmaceutical company). With this marriage, a renaissance occurred on the site as Frederic and Evelyn entered a prolific period of embellishing Bonnet House with the decorative elements that delight visitors to this day.

(Archway into the courtyard.)

Frederic died in 1953, but Evelyn continued to return each winter. In 1983, Evelyn Fortune Bartlett gave Bonnet House to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. Her contribution — at the time, the largest charitable gift in Florida history — ensured that the site would be preserved for the enjoyment and education of future generations.

(The house surrounds the courtyard.)

The site was listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1984 and declared an historic landmark by the City of Fort Lauderdale in 2002. In 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included Bonnet House in its Save America's Treasures program. Due to the threat posed by inappropriately massive nearby development, the National Trust and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation listed Bonnet House as one of America's 11 most endangered sites in 2008.


Bonnet House Museum & Gardens is accredited by the American Association of Museums. Interestingly, I was able to receive free admission because I am a member of the Desert Botanical Gardens at home in Phoenix — and happened to be carrying my membership card at the time.


As mentioned above, Bartlett applied his artist's eye to every detail of design of this home.

(Detail of balcony railing.)

Like any good artist does in his artwork, Bartlett's design of the Bonnet House draws you in — inviting you to look closer to see the detail that gives the design its richness.


Even something simple like a breezeway takes on the shape of ocean waves — with the real thing only 100 yards or so to the east.


And what a wonderful design of a sunburst to add interest to this fanlight (the window or opening above a door).

To be continued.

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com