What Is Bonnet House?

Mark Wollacott

Bonnet House is an American Association of Museums-accredited institution, art gallery and event venue in Southern Florida. The house and its 50 acres of land sit in Fort Lauderdale not far north from Miami. The building was first built as a seaside residence in the 1920s and has since become a commercial venue run to both preserve it and to open the site to the public. Bonnet House is recognized across America as a historic landmark.

The Bonnet House occasionally hosts opera performances.
The Bonnet House occasionally hosts opera performances.

The 1895 World Fair in Chicago elicited two responses from two very different men. Hugh Taylor Birch moved south and purchased the land now known as Bonnet House to escape the large numbers of people who descended upon the city for the fair. Archaeologists have since found out that the land dates back to ancient times, with shell middens and a settlement built by Spanish explorers unearthed. Birch did not build on the land, but instead gave the land to his daughter Helen Birch.

Manatees live in Bonnet House gardens.
Manatees live in Bonnet House gardens.

Birch’s daughter married a man called Frederic Clay Bartlett. Bartlett was also at the World Fair in Chicago. Instead of wanting to escape, he discovered a love of art. After turning his hand to murals, he studied at the Royal Academy in Munich and worked with a number of architects across America. The couple built Bonnet House on Birch's land in 1920.

The house was designed to evoke images, as imagined by Bartlett, of Hispanic architecture and of Caribbean plantation mansions. Bartlett wanted Bonnet House to have none of the formality and ornamentation of wealthy manor houses and mansions. Instead, he wanted it to feel like a vacation home or seaside retreat, while also being a suitable place for him to produce works of art. Some elements of wealth can still be seen beyond the sheer size of the building and its lands as there are Davenport dessert dishes and a number of pieces of Spode china.

After Bartlett’s wife Helen died, he remarried and continued to visit the house. It filled up with not only his artwork, but also those he collected. Bartlett’s collection at Bonnet House includes works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat. His second wife, Evelyn, maintained the house until 1983 when it was given to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation.

Visitors are allowed to tour Bonnet House and to look around its art galleries, but there are entrance fees associated with this. Bartlett’s works and his collection are displayed as part of the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. Evelyn Bartlett also dabbled in painting and her works can be found in the Carl J. Weinhardt gallery in the house.

Bonnet House also hosts a number of other events. These range from private functions such as parties and wedding ceremonies to public events such as the Impressions art, food and music festival. There are also a range of lectures, temporary exhibitions and music concerts. Music includes opera and vocal ensemble performances.

Tourists are also able to visit the gardens of Bonnet House. These include a mangrove swamp and sea-forest. The natural habitats are one of the few remaining examples of a natural South Florida barrier island habitat. This is due to the mass development of the barrier islands in the 20th century. Bonnet House gardens are also home to manatees, gopher tortoises and Costa Rican squirrel monkeys.

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