Field Trip: Bonnet House


I’ve been intrigued with Bonnet House ever since a water taxi guide pointed it out while we were on the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale during one of our first vacations to South Florida. From the water, the 35 acres look like a jungle, a section of property completely undeveloped and straddling the land between the Intracoastal and the Atlantic Ocean.

Somewhere in all that greenery, though, was a house — an historic house, a legendary house. The story, according to the water taxi guide — who tells tales of all the mansions along the Intracoastal — is the house was the home of two artists, Frederic and Evelyn Bartlett.

One of the banyan trees on the property.

In 1983, thirty years after Frederic’s death, she gifted her little piece of paradise to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation so future generations could see Florida the way it looked in 1931, the year she married Frederic.

In exchange, Evelyn would be allowed to live there — tax-free — until her death. The Trust, the City, the County, and the State couldn’t decline such a generous gift, particularly because Mrs. Bartlett was, at the time of the gifting, already 96 years old.

Well, our dear Mrs. Bartlett, born of strong Midwest stock and possessing strong ties to New England, held onto the estate until she passed at 107 years of age — which means the government did not receive taxes on the property for 14 years.

One of the many orchids tied to trees. The small package tied to the stem is filled with orchid fertilizer, something created by the present-day caretakers. When it rains, a small bit is released to feed the plant.

The estate, though, remained a secret for Joe and me. For whatever reason, we never made a visit. In the intervening years, I had heard stories of orchids in the trees and  monkeys, descendants of Mrs. Bartlett’s animal collection. In my mind, I envisioned manicured lawns and formal gardens. I pictured Wonderland, an Oz in my own backyard.

Thanks to friends visiting from New York, we made actual plans to visit Bonnet House. A long driveway slices through natural, untouched land. There’s a grassy parking area, and after paying the entrance fee, visitors gathered in the desert garden — a sandy area that’s an oasis of succulents, cactus, and date palms.

There weren’t any manicured lawns or formal gardens. This wasn’t Newport, RI. This was old, pre-development, pre-Spring Break Fort Lauderdale.

The gate to the house.

When the tour guide arrived, we moved as a group to the gate. Frederic Clay Bartlett, said the guide, was already a widower when he built the house in 1921 after receiving the land as a gift from the father of his second wife, the poet Helen Louise Birch. At the time, Fort Lauderdale was a small settlement on the New River and Florida panthers roamed the barrier beaches.

At last, the guide opened the gate, and as more and more came into view — I wasn’t Alice or Dorothy. Instead, I was Charlie stepping into Willy Wonka’s whimsical world.

The courtyard.

The house — simple, rustic, brightly painted — was built around an open-air courtyard. A covered colonnade keeps the sun off of guests as they walk from room to room.

The aviary in the courtyard.

Bartlett’s second wife died in 1925. Soon after, he met Evelyn, the daughter of a wealthy Midwest family and the ex-wife of Eli Lilly, grandson of the founder of the Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Company.

Upon their marriage, she began to add her touches to the home, which was built to look like a Caribbean plantation. According to an interview with Mrs. Bartlett, the interior was “very severe” and “had no decoration at all.”

One of the ceilings under the colonnade, hand-painted by Evelyn and Frederic.

Mrs. Bartlett changed all that.  She even gave the house its name in honor of the bonnet lilies that bloomed in the waterway adjacent to the main house.

No bonnet lilies blooming at the moment.

The house is most certainly a celebration of two artists who traveled, collected art (much of which the couple donated to the Art Institute of Chicago), and loved each other. Art is everywhere — and each item has meaning — which is a big reason why every effort is taken to preserve the contents of the house. There is no air conditioning and no photography (which is why my photos are of outdoor moments).

In addition to decorating the house, Mrs. Bartlett also decorated the outdoors with many varieties of orchids. One news report even said she could recount how and where every plant was found, collected, or purchased.

The Orchid House.

Which brings me to the one indoor photo I had to take — of the Orchid House. There was so much light streaming in, and I figured my camera couldn’t hurt it. I also thought  Mrs. Bartlett, although very private, was a gardener who knew all of the details of her plants and wouldn’t mind sharing her orchids with the rest of the world.