A Florida Jewel Turns 100

By Lauren Alexis Rodriguez | Photos by Xavier Marañón

Happy Centennial Celebration to
The Bonnet House Museum & Gardens

Time Capsule

“He’ll know my birds and 

my trees and my flowers

And in friendship or in strife

He’ll be a man as I love a man

And live a Good Man’s life.” 

—Helen Birch Bartlett, from “Big Boss,”
a poem written at age 15, about her father, Hugh Taylor Birch

At first encounter WITH the enchanting, oceanfront site, prominent Chicago attorney and real estate investor, Hugh Taylor Birch, proclaimed the Bonnet House property “the most beautiful spot upon which I had laid eyes in all my travels.” One hundred years later, it endures as an ode to the South Florida of old, surviving and thriving in all of its historical glory and splendor. 


The year was 1919 when Birch gifted his daughter, Helen, and her new husband Frederic Clay Bartlett, the land they would transform into the Bonnet estate. Helen, a passionate poet, composer of music, and lover of nature, and Frederic, a noted Chicago painter, began construction of their home in 1920, intending to use it as a winter retreat in which they could steal away to produce their art. Unbeknownst to them, their honeymoon would soon come to an end when, in 1925, tragedy would strike in the form of breast cancer which took Helen’s life. Overcome by the grief of his wife’s passing, Frederic’s visits to Bonnet House would remain infrequent until 1931 when he married Evelyn Fortune Lilly. A distinguished woman of Indianapolis origin, and an artist in her own right, Evelyn worked alongside her husband until his death in 1953, co-curating many of the treasures that still adorn the landmark to this day. For more than 40 years after her husband’s passing, she was steadfast in the care and keeping of the estate, and in 1983, Evelyn Fortune Bartlett bestowed the Bonnet House to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. Her benefaction remains one of the grandest philanthropic gestures in Floridian history.


The Bonnet House is, in many ways, a house of treasures. A true Renaissance man, Frederic Bartlett not only created art, but dedicated himself to collecting it. Throughout the course of time in which they inhabited the subtropical estate, Frederic and first wife Helen garnered a priceless collection of paintings. Among these works are Georges Seurat’s renowned masterpiece, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Paul Gauguin’s Day of the God, and from Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period, The Old Guitarist. Today, these masterpieces constitute part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.

Despite the prowess he demonstrated in art collecting, Frederic often noted that his greatest artistic discovery was his second wife, and lauded Evelyn Fortune Bartlett’s intrinsic artistic genius. With scarce formal instruction, Evelyn relied on the encouragement of her husband, and initiated a career as a painter in 1933. Painting abundantly for the following five years, she went on to enjoy recognition in prominent gallery exhibits in Boston, New York, and Indianapolis. These works are now displayed for viewing in Bonnet House’s Carl J. Weinhardt Gallery.

Ecology and Gardens

The beloved Bonnet gardens and its expansive ecological system are truly the property’s tour de force. Boasting one of South Florida’s remaining models of a native barrier island habitat, five distinct ecosystems can be found on site including the Atlantic Ocean beach and central dune, a freshwater swamp, the secondary dune, mangrove wetlands, and a seaside forest. Here, one can roam amid some of the finest orchids in the continental U.S., and walk where ancient Tequesta Indians, first European settlers, and shipwrecked sailors once set foot. The blissful Bonnet oasis is also home to an array of exotic wildlife such as swans, and South American squirrel monkeys. 


In fulfillment of Evelyn Fortune Bartlett’s desires, the Bonnet estate functions today as a place of enjoyment and a breeding ground for educational enrichment. By way of public tours, an annual orchid festival, and specialized art programs among a number of other activities, the Bonnet House Museum & Gardens remains an immortalization of the Bartletts’ architectural, creative and environmental legacy. 

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