The first time I saw the Bonnet House, I was in complete awe of its beauty. The bright yellow, sprawling, open-air Spanish-style house, snuggled into 35 acres of lush South Florida greenery in Fort Lauderdale, isn’t just unique, it’s incredibly captivating. Perhaps it has something to do with its history and the people who once lived there.
Although its grounds date back thousands of years, as far back as one of the first sites of Spanish contact with the New World, it was a man by the name of Hugh Taylor Birch responsible for making it what it is today. Mr. Birch, who was a successful lawyer, purchased the beachside property back in 1895 and then as fate would have it, gifted it to his daughter, Helen, as a wedding present.
Helen was a talented writer and an accomplished composer, who adored penning poetry and making music; so it only made sense that she would marry a fellow artist. Her new husband, Frederic Clay Bartlett, was a well-studied and well-skilled Chicago painter. He also had an affinity for design and architecture.
Together and very much in love, the couple officially broke ground on “The Beautiful Bonnet House,” in 1920. It was meant to be a summer seaside retreat where they both could practice and celebrate what they loved most: art. Unfortunately, their happiness was short-lived, when Helen died of breast cancer. Needless to say, Frederic was devastated and stopped frequenting the Bonnet House.
Matter of fact, he wouldn’t fully return to the villa until love came back into his life and luckily for us – it did. When Fredric finally remarried, his new wife, Evelyn Fortune Lilly, encouraged him to return to his beloved Florida beach house and cultivate it. During that time, the house and property went through a renaissance of sorts.
The couple breathed new life into “The Beautiful Bonnet House,” filling it with amazing art, unique furnishings and spirited music. They were also known for their hospitality, hosting many guests, serving delicious food, all while using their extensive China collections. Rumor has it, if you were lucky enough to dine at the Bonnet House, you’d never eat off the same plate twice.
To this day, the house remains exactly the way Fredric and Evelyn decorated it. When you visit, you’ll see everything from the China they used, their exquisite home decorations, unique furnishings, fantastic art and even their famed music room (which was largely a tribute to Fredric’s first wife, Helen.) Although the house is, indeed, stately…
It’s also fashionably quirky. I imagine it to be a place where a lot of laughter, love and carefree living happened. There are carousel animals scattered about the outdoor hallways of the villa, a colorful bird cage in the courtyard and there’s a menagerie of monkey art in the living room (as well as real, live ones on the property, too.) Originally, it was said, Evelyn purchased dozens of monkeys to live on the land when she first started cultivating it.
While “The Beautiful Bonnet House” has come a long way, it’s also stayed exactly the same and that’s the charm of it. It’s all made possible thanks to a small army of volunteers and its dedicated staff. Recently, I caught up with the always affable Patrick Shavloske, the museums Director of Development.
SS: When was the house first made into a museum?
Patrick Shavloske: Evelyn donated the property in 1983. It opened as a museum in 1987 on a seasonal basis (it was closed in the winters as Evelyn continued to live here). It opened year round in 1995.
SS: When visitors tour the house are they able to have a full experience?
PS: The first floor rooms are open year round, six days per week. The upstairs bedrooms are accessible on “Behind the Scenes Tours” that include the curatorial storage areas. These are offered on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month at 2pm, December to May.
SS: I loved shooting for the blog on the grounds, it’s so beautiful and serene. What do you do to keep the property and house in its original state?
PS: It’s a constant struggle to keep the estate in good repair. The seaside climate and salt air make for a very harsh environment, especially for the artwork. Our curatorial and maintenance staff regularly monitor the property and make repairs as necessary. Artwork rotates in and out of storage and conservation to preserve it. Fortunately, the Bartletts kept everything, so when the house became a museum, all the original furnishing and decorative items came with it. They were also great photographers, so we’ve been able to use their photos and home movies to slowly return some parts of the grounds to their 1930’s and 40’s appearance. We like to say our visitors have an authentic experience when they visit Bonnet House.
SS: The house is a great host to many events. Can you share some of your popular ones?
PS: Our Orchid Festival is held the first weekend of December and is a great opportunity to see the house and grounds at a leisurely pace as well as enjoy and purchase exotic orchids not widely available. The Young Artist Music Series is a popular concert series with one concert held each month January through April; it features music students from the University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University, Lynn University, and the Florida Grand Opera. Cruisin’ Down the River is a popular event that pairs a lecture on local history with a New River cruise; those are held three or four times per year. Check out www.bonnethouse.org for a complete list of events and classes. The estate is also available as a wedding venue.
SS: What is your favorite part of the house?
PS: The outside verandas, both overlooking the courtyards and the path to the ocean. They’re so peaceful (at least when events are not taking place!) Frederic designed Bonnet House to take maximum advantage of the winters in South Florida and the ocean breeze. Stopping to enjoy those areas makes you realize why. I like the Bamboo Bar too. Who wouldn’t want their very own Tiki bar?
SS: You’re my Easter Blog, which is always a special topic or place. What makes “Bonnet House” a special retreat?
PS: The Bartletts were highly individualistic. That shows through in their decoration of Bonnet House. They were able to take an eclectic collection of fine art and furniture, combine it with their own decorative touches and make a winter home that is formal by today’s standards but still comfortable. They didn’t decorate to impress others. They made a home for themselves that reflected themselves. We often think of Easter as a time for rebirth and fresh hope. The Bartletts used Bonnet House and the Barrier Island as a place to recharge and create. Visitors today often leave here refreshed and inspired.
When shooting Easter fashions at the Bonnet House, I couldn’t believe how peaceful and serene it was, not to mention undeniably beautiful. No matter where we took a picture, the backdrop was breathtaking. The captures we got are some of my favorites to date since starting the blog and that says a lot, as we have taken hundreds of photos over the last several years.
The clothing was special, too. Serendipity Consignment Boutique from Boca Raton, who provided dresses with amazing textures, beautiful materials and eye-catching colors (pictured in the blog,) have some of the most gorgeous pre-loved luxury items I’ve ever seen. If you’re a fashionista who appreciates labels, you’re going to want to put this boutique on your list of places to purchase things you’ve always dreamed of.
This spring, fashion is all about being lady-like; with beautiful rounded skirts, romantic dresses and flowers galore. Even a vintage sweater with intricate detailing would complete a modern day look. I’m so enthusiastic about this kind of style, as it’s truly my own. Heels are considerably less chunky, too. While the single sole remains in the forefront, you’ll be stepping in the right direction if you can snag a pair of pretty pointed-toe, moderately low heels. A real pocketbook, with a snap or lock on top, is the perfect accessory.
Easter and spring, if you will, is also a time of reflection and renewal. For me, it’s about recommitting to all the things I find important in life. I make it a point to remember and reimagine my dreams, goals and all the people I love in my life and I put a fresh new energy and spirit into all of them. As a writer, I make a list and think on it. In no particular order…
I’m looking forward to working on my health, a visit from my parents who are coming from New Mexico, growing my blog, hanging out with my good friends, evolving as a television host and, most importantly, loving the man of my dreams. Even though I know all of these things in my heart, I’m recommitting myself to each and every one. If you have time, make your own list and then…
Take a stroll on the grounds of “The Beautiful Bonnet House.” There’s something about nature that opens the heart and whispers honesty into the mind. At least it did for me and that’s why it’s one of my favorite things.
The museum is open Easter Day from 9am-4pm www.bonnethouse.org
Facebook: The Bonnet House Museum & Gardens
Address: 900 N. Birch Rd., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33305
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Photographer: James Woodley
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Editor: Matthew Auerbach