The Bonnet House: A look behind the wall and jungle
Way back when I was in my salad days going to high school in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., my friends and I spent a good deal of our spare time at the world’s most famous beach. It was sand and sun and plenty of good times, too. We gathered there on sunny days under the coconut palms that sway in the tropical breezes and line the miles and miles of beach; cruised A1A in our convertible cars on balmy nights; sipped hot mulled apple cider and nibbled bagels spread with cream cheese at a popular cafe where folksingers strummed their guitars and sang songs of protest and a better society. While it wasn’t exactly the center of our universe, it came close.
Yeah, it was a lifetime ago. So much about that place, and us, too, has changed. But one thing about that scene remains constant, and that is The Bonnet House. This hidden gem at the center of 35 precious acres that stretch from the Intracoastal Waterway to the Atlantic Ocean on that world’s most famous beach was then and is to this day, still surrounded by a thick jungle of marine hammock, corralled by walls and wire fences.
What a temptation that fortress presented to restless teenagers to scale those walls, struggle through the rank growth and explore! While my friends and I did not dare trespass, we heard rumors of those who braved the intimidating barrier. Rumors also told of an eccentric old woman who lived within that tangle (true), and a pack of vicious dogs that protected her (also true). If we had imagined flying monkeys (partly true) patrolling the perimeter we would have come close to the reality of that place. The mystery! The intrigue! The danger! The seclusion and what that impenetrable thicket hid was just too tempting for some.
While we did not know it then, behind those walls and fences, beyond the dense snare of coastal vegetation was one of the quirkiest and most eccentric little castles filled with all manner of exotic treasures. And it was true that until just a few years ago there had been a very old and equally eccentric woman who lived in that brilliant yellow house — The Bonnet House. The Bonnet House, Museum & Gardens is now a property of the Florida Trust, and anyone can visit without having to brave snarling guard dogs or scale tall walls to explore this unparalleled piece of artistic display, gardens and Florida’s natural history that dates to the 1890s.
Back then a wealthy Chicago attorney, Hugh Taylor Birch, bought hundreds of acres of oceanfront in what would one day become Ft. Lauderdale. His daughter, Helen, received a two-thirds interest in that land when she married artist Frederic Clay Bartlett. Helen and Frederic created a winter retreat on a portion of the land in the 1920s that would eventually become a time capsule of the era. In the process, they preserved a tiny piece of natural Florida. It was Frederic’s vision of a Caribbean plantation house that influenced the design of the enclave. A central courtyard sets the tone for this eclectic property. It is filled with tropical plants and broad verandahs that incorporate Moorish elements where art and artifacts from all over the world, exotic plants and orchids are displayed,.
The name "Bonnet House" comes from the yellow bonnet waterlilies (Nuphar subintegerrima) which bloom in a pond in front of the house. Quirky outbuildings perched within the natural vegetation, exotic and colorful plant specimens, a small lath greenhouse bursting with orchids and a shell museum are just a few of the wonders to behold beyond the surrounding walls of the house itself.
Within its walls are yet more tropical plants populating a central courtyard with coral block pathways. The rooms showcase collections of artwork and valuable artifacts from around the globe. The last resident, Evelyn Fortune Lily Bartlett (Frederic’s third wife), lived in the house until the mid-1990s. Her bequest of The Bonnet House and its contents came with the stipulation that nothing be moved nor removed from the house.
So today, visitors can see exactly what it was like to live in The Bonnet House, right down to the selection of china set for a luncheon on the dining table. In its heyday, that dining room hosted the rich and famous and the powerful. The property itself contains pathways to explore and experience a precious swath of native marine coastal dune vegetation. And yes, monkeys too, although they are the last few of a once-numerous troupe of little squirrel monkeys. Daily tours of the house and plant interpretations around the grounds give visitors an opportunity to sample this microcosm of a long-lost time in Florida history.
The Bonnet House, Museum & Gardens is open for tours Tuesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Orchid House tours are the second Tuesday of each month from 11 a.m. to noon. The property is located at 900 North Birch Road, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. For more information, call (954) 563-5393 or visit the website at: bonnethouse.org