The house was built in 1920 by the hardware distributor and Chicago artist, Frederic Clay Bartlett, and his wealthy wife Helen who’s father Hugh Taylor Birch gave them the property as a wedding gift. Birch was a wealthy Chicago attorney and general counsel for Standard Oil. By a stroke of luck he met Henry Flagler. If you live in this part of South Florida, you are very familiar with the Flagler name. It’s everywhere.
Flagler was a railroad tycoon who turned to real estate and began to develop South Florida. The two men met on a train traveling from north Florida to Hobe Sound. Birch wanted to travel further south and Flagler lent him a small sailboat. I guess that what’s wealthy people do, they borrow each other’s boats. Setting off alone, he was caught up in a storm and sought refuge at an inlet where he eventually bought the land where the Bonnet House was built.
Sadly, Helen died of breast cancer five years after they married and Frederic rarely visited their Florida home until he met Evelyn Fortune Lilly. A fortuitous middle name indeed. She was the daughter of Eli Lilly, yes that Eli Lilly of Big Pharma. After marrying Bartlett she took up painting and many of her still lifes are on display in the former guest room.
The museum guide in that particular room told us one of her Palm Beach girlfriends once criticized her work and Evelyn stopped painting. I loved her paintings and as a writer who has been on the receiving end of criticism I wish I could have told her that woman was no friend and you can’t let the critics hold you back. I am not sure why people spend their time criticizing other people’s efforts but you need to ignore them. Their criticism says more about them than you.
But this is easier said than done. I understood her reaction to the critics. It was just one of the things I liked about Evelyn. The other thing I liked was the casual elegance of her home. The plantation style house was built around a central courtyard.
It’s an eccentric design, none of the rooms are connected, you enter through doors off the courtyard. Whimsical artwork is everywhere.
I couldn’t stop taking pictures. There was something to look at everywhere I turned. I loved these colorful umbrella shutters.
It was outdoor tropical living at it’s best. A rambling house that fits in with the landscape of sea, sand, and tropical flora.
Mrs. Bartlett lived to the age of 109 and many of the guests that day marveled at her longevity. “How did she do it?” they asked. My theory is she lived a charmed life in a beautiful home by a tropical beach and had the time and means to pursue her passions. I envied her pursuit of her art without the mundane worries of middle class life in the 21st century.
There is one more thing I admire about Evelyn Fortune Lilly Bartlett and that was her foresight . The City of Fort Lauderdale aggressively pursued the Bartletts for years, trying to purchase this piece of property for development. In the present day gilded age of new wealth and robber barons, I can tell you there is very little public beach front left in this part of South Florida. Highrises and mansions that rival the Newport of the roaring twenties block most of the once scenic drive along Route A1A. When Evelyn first expressed concern about this she had no idea what South Florida would look like in 2014 and I am grateful she saved this beautiful piece of property for all to enjoy.
“There is nothing left along the shore. There is nothing left except this place from Miami to Palm Beach. I don’t want it to change.” ~ Evelyn Fortune Bartlett
There might be another secret to Mrs. Bartlett’s longevity. She enjoyed entertaining and had a bar that I covet.
Some people attribute her health to the house cocktail she served but others say she never drank it herself. Her cocktail of choice was a gin and tonic. Either way, the house drink sounds like a delicious combination of New England meets the Tropics and I am definitely going to be making it for this weekend’s Christmas boat parade. Here’s the recipe:
RANGPUR LIME COCKTAIL
4 parts Barbados Eclipse dark rum
1 part fresh Rangpur lime juice
Sweeten to taste with Vermont Maple Syrup
Combine the rum and lime juice in a pitcher and mix well. Add enough syrup to sweeten to taste. Chill, covered, until ready to serve. Pour over crushed ice in a short glass.
If you’re ever in the greater Fort Lauderdale-Miami area, directions to the Bonnet House are here. It is without a doubt an afternoon well spent.