By Nila Do Simon
Photography by Robin Hill
One man’s home has held a special place to countless South Florida visitors. Built in 1920, the Bonnet House Museum & Gardens was once the home of the great Chicago artist Frederic Clay Bartlett. Since then, thousands of guests have walked the historic halls in admiration of this awe-inspiring property. The Bonnet House, named after the bonnet lily that grows on the property, has become a peaceful respite and a reflection of Old Florida, shaded away from the glitzy, contemporary South Florida world. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Bonnet House is a peek inside how Fort Lauderdale used to be, and just how beautiful nature can be in its most pristine state.
The land, alongside A1A just south of Sunrise Boulevard, was given to Helen Birch after she wedded Bartlett in 1919. Her father was the famed Chicago attorney Hugh Taylor Birch who represented Standard Oil Co. He gave the newlyweds a piece of his beloved Florida estate, where they built their Caribbean-style plantation home on more than 30 acres. Avid art collectors, the couple amassed a grand anthology of post-Impressionist pieces from their travels.
Helen died in 1925; six years later, Bartlett married Evelyn Fortune Lilly (ex-wife to the pharmaceutical industrialist Eli Lilly). Both artists, the Bartletts used the home as their canvas, literally. Frederic painted whimsical designs on the walls, floors and ceilings, while Evelyn exhibited vibrant portraits and still-life paintings. She also collected china and animal figurines and housed thousands of orchids. An ode to his favorite colors—yellow and blue—Bartlett covered the home in those two shades, which still shine today.
Even after Frederic’s death in 1953, Evelyn continued to winter at her Florida home. She eventually gave up ownership to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983, wanting to allow a public audience to enjoy the home. Since then, the home has been known as the Bonnet House Museum & Gardens.
Now a sanctuary to thousands of visitors, the Bonnet House has evolved from its days with the Bartletts. While still focused on preserving the family’s history and the property’s integrity, it comes alive with public art exhibits, cocktail events, concerts, orchid festivals and art classes. The home now plays host to the well-attended Impressions, an annual juried art competition and exhibition that opens with a celebratory gala.
“Every year, Impressions has gotten better,” says Stephen Draft, the Bonnet House’s curator for the past six years and a former volunteer. “There are just amazingly talented people and a variety of art, subject, media, styles—from the more traditional to modern and contemporary. It’s very exciting to see this variety of art in Fort Lauderdale.”
Draft, a former Boston resident who had been immersed with historic colonial homes, admits the Bonnet House is unlike anything he has known. “All the faux paintings and the murals that Frederic did, you don’t see those anymore,” he says. “The indoor-outdoor setting is really not like any place you’ve ever seen. At least once a week, people say that in their 30-some years of living in Fort Lauderdale that they have never been to the Bonnet House. And they love it when they come.”
Originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue.