Thinking of travel to Florida? History buffs, art lovers and garden tourists will all find Bonnet House worth a visit.
Located on 35 acres of Barrier Island on the Fort Lauderdale Florida shore, the Bonnet House grounds and home reflect the nature of the residents who needed a retreat from their hectic lifestyle. There are no huge rooms that echo, no workout room with rows of equipment, just peaceful surroundings accented by hand-made and hand-painted art.
The history of the property began with Chicago attorney Hugh Taylor Birch who purchased 3 miles of Ft. Lauderdale beach for a dollar an acre in 1893. Birch spent the winter on the beach, swimming in the ocean, and trekking the native hardwood hammocks. His daughter, Helen, married Frederic Bartlett and the couple received part of the Birch land as a wedding gift.
The Bartletts named the residence, Bonnet House after a yellow lily that is native to the fresh water slough on the property. Bartlett’s third wife, Evelyn Lilly, spent winters at the house until her death in 1997, one month before her 110th birthday. Her gift ensures the preservation of the house and grounds in their original style.
Even after his daughter’s death in 1925, Birch continued to spend his time with Bartlett and his wife Evelyn, until 1941. At that time, he built a home of his own on the property now known as Birch State Park.
In the central courtyard of the residence, Evelyn had the sand replaced by 4-inches of soil in the 1930s in order to plant a lush garden. Surrounding the courtyard, there is an artist’s studio with two-story, floor to ceiling north windows, a large second story veranda with expansive views, and Helen’s music room.
Frederic Clay Bartlett (1873-1953) demonstrated his boundless energy and talents throughout the property. Though his fame was primarily as a builder and muralist, at Bonnet House, he made furniture, created shell inlay around doors, built the pillars and door jambs, put in a music room for Helen and created faux marble surfaces. When Bartlett had eye surgery, Evelyn became the family painter for 5 years and a former guesthouse now serves as a small museum, displaying the family’s paintings.
On the grounds, Bartlett cleared the forest, put in a fruit orchard, filled a swamp to plant coconut palms, dredged lowlands to make a fresh water lagoon, built a shell museum and bamboo lined bar. Evelyn’s 110-acre vegetable farm in Massachusetts provided plenty of fresh food for entertaining.
The grounds are natural rather than manicured, making the setting relaxed. Much of the 1930 landscaping was blown away in hurricanes in 1995, EDSA, a Ft. Lauderdale landscape architecture firm, used the garden design captured on the Bartlett’s home movies to recreate the original.
The Bartletts added Australian pines as a buffer from Highway A1A, which is just on the other side of their property. Native plants in the under story include wild coffee, silver palm, coontie (Zamia floridana or Arrow Root), gumbo-limbo, seagrape, sabal palms and paradise trees. Night blooming Queen of the Night Cereus (Selenicereus) climbs to the top of the trees.
The land that Birch bought now preserves saltwater wetlands and an ecosystem endangered due to coastline development.
On the driveway to the house, there is a row of Melaleuca (Tea) trees. While inside the courtyard, tropical plants surround a central fountain, a desert garden sits outside the residence, 14 feet above sea level, the highest spot on the parcel. Endangered habitats on the property include maritime forest, mangrove swamp, primary and secondary dune. Brazilian squirrel monkeys, Manatees and fiddler crabs also live on the estate.
Bonnet House, 900 North Birch Road, Fort Lauderdale, FL, www.bonnethouse.org, 954-563-5393. For more history see http://www.bonnethouse.org/pdf/Fall%202010.pdf or http://bit.ly/cd7HBX or