In its heyday, the mangroves at Bonnet House in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, sheltered a barrel of wild monkeys who so loved their mistress, Evelyn Bartlett, that they seemed to know exactly when she was en route from Massachusetts. By the time she arrived for the winter season, they were gathered in the branches overhanging the porch, awaiting the toast points with strawberry jam that Evelyn fed them.
It seems outrageous, calling to mind Mrs. Thurston Howell III, doesn’t it? But such are the privileges of the very very wealthy. And what good fortune that Evelyn Bartlett (whose maiden name was indeed Fortune) did not sell her valuable property to Fort Lauderdale developers, that instead she donated all 35 acres to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation.
Today, Bonnet House is one of the only homes and art studios of two recognized American artists — Frederic Bartlett and his wife Evelyn — that has remained intact with original furnishings. I highly recommend a visit. For $20 you too can feed monkeys, wander the loggias, explore the dense hammocks, and marvel at the artistic talents of its former occupants. I think it is our version of Monet’s Giverny.
Here is a quick history on Bonnet House and the interesting people who built it.
Until 1895, the property was nothing more than mangroves, Florida scrub bushes and sandy beaches. But that year, Hugh Taylor Birch, a successful Chicago lawyer and amateur artist, found himself blown ashore in a storm, and he decided he liked the place. It would be an escape from Chicago’s relentless noise. So he bought up a bunch of land for thirty dollars an acre — a very valuable investment. In the end, he owned almost 3.5 miles of beachfront property in what is now the heart of Fort Lauderdale.
In 1919, Hugh gave the bulk of the land to his daughter Helen and her husband, artist Frederic Clay Bartlett, as a wedding gift. The Bartletts built a plantation-style home named the Bonnet House (after the bonnet lily that grows in profusion on the property), where they spent their winters. The rest of the year, they traveled extensively in Europe, scooping up all manner of fabulous art painted by those renegade Impressionists, including Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Tragically though, Helen died within five years, of cancer, in 1925.
Frederic subsequently married Evelyn Fortune Lilly, ex-wife of Eli Lilly, grandson of the pharmaceutical giant. With this marriage, a second renaissance of the Bonnet House began. Both Frederic and Evelyn were talented artists and they embellished Bonnet House with their own paintings, collected works from their travels (such as a stunning mural of ancient Persian Kings), and charmingly decorated rooms, loggias, porches and gardens.
Frederic died in 1953, but Evelyn continued to return each winter. In 1983, she donated Bonnet House to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation —at the time, the largest charitable gift in Florida history— but she continued to live there until the ripe age of 109 when she passed in 1997.
Today, Bonnet House remains largely as it looked in the 1930s and 40s, except it is completely surrounded by modern day Fort Lauderdale. It is a secret island of wild monkeys, fine paintings, antique dishes, carousel animals, and ancient orchids, right under the shadow of glass and steel high rises.
Please enjoy my tour, but excuse the poor quality of my photos. The signs say no photography, a rule I blatantly broke.
Seeing as this is a Friday and Evelyn was such a gracious host, I’ll end today’s blog post with one of her recipes using the Rangpur lime, which Evelyn brought from India to her property. May you have an artful and interesting weekend!
Rangpur Lime Cocktail
four parts Barbados Eclipse dark rum
1 part fresh Rangpur lime juice
sweeten to taste with Vermont maple syrup and serve over crushed ice.