By John Dolen
City & Shore Magazine
In the 1930s, the bridge over the Intracoastal by the Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale was a hand-cranked swivel span. More than a few kids would hop on and jump off on the ocean side of Sunrise Boulevard, and head right for what we now call the Bonnet House property. There they’d romp in the exotic gardens, awed by the imported monkeys, iguanas, raccoons and ponds full of turtles and birds.
The 35-acre estate, developed in spurts in the 1920s and ’30s, still has that same exotica, with the same crunched-shell driveway, gumbo limbos, rangpur lime trees and color-drenched Caribbean-style home.
But since 1985, it’s been a magical getaway for all of us, too, becoming a choice spot for wedding celebrations and special gala events. Little wonder it was chosen for the season finale of The Amazing Race in 2005. Or for scenes from Hoot, a Hollywood adaptation of Carl Hiaasen’s 2002 novel.
Yet for all too many residents and visitors, this time capsule at 900 N. Birch Road, now named the Bonnet House Museum & Gardens, is still an unopened door. Pity.
Professional photographer Larry Singer first wandered to the Bonnet House in 2014 for a one-time visit. He had no idea. But no sooner than you can say “start me up,” Singer arranged for an art fellowship, putting his rock concert photography on the back burner.
At least three days a week for the next 18 months, Singer photographed everything that moved on the estate, from the bees and dragonflies to the green iguanas, red-bellied turtles and Costa Rican spider monkeys. His spectacular shots also reveal a rich trove of waterfowl, from lovely swans and ibises to the moorhens and yellow-crowned night herons.
His visual exploration, seen in the current volume Bonnet House: Exploring Nature and Estate Photography, also captures the rich stillness of the gardens and season-changing flora adorning what was home to two happy unions.
The first was that of Helen Louise Birch and Frederic Bartlett. He was a noted Chicago artist, she a composer. If her last name sounds familiar, it’s because she is the daughter of Hugh Taylor Birch, whose name is on the massive park on the other side of Sunrise Boulevard, heading north along the Intracoastal.
Both tracts were once part of the Chicago lawyer’s single holding. At a time when there were barely 100 people living in the city, Birch, a naturalist, fell in love with the area and bought up land. So what better wedding present for his daughter than to chip off a 35-acre barrier island?
When Bartlett designed and finished building the house in 1921, A1A was a rugged dirt road and Florida panthers still roamed the scrub brush along the beach.
But the creative couple now had the ultimate retreat, in total seclusion in a primordial setting of dunes, mangrove wetlands, a fresh water marsh and a maritime forest.
Bartlett once studied with Whistler and had a vast holding of art in Chicago including works by Picasso, van Gogh and Matisse. Art and music studios were part of the home’s design, with touches of “Caribbean” color everywhere. He and Helen wintered there from 1920 until her death in 1925 from cancer.
Bartlett remarried in 1931, in a union backed by Hugh Taylor Birch. His new wife, Evelyn Fortune Lilly, was also an artist.
This Lilly was not named for the flower, but the name connected with a pharmaceuticals giant. With means to travel the world, the pair brought in rare plants and wildlife from their far-off journeys. Evelyn gave the estate its current name, after the Bonnet lily that grew there.
Her morning ritual is of legend. She prepared toast points lathered with strawberry preserves, then sat on her porch feeding them to waiting monkeys.
After Bartlett died in 1953, she refused numerous offers to sell. Lilly remained on the estate and, 30 years later, forged an agreement with a Florida trust. She would donate the entire estate – worth an astounding $35 million then – if it would be open to the public and maintained as it was.
Oh, and one more thing. She wanted to live out her years there.
Agreed, said the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983. Evelyn surprised herself and many others by living on until 1997, passing on just short of her 110th birthday.
Photographer Singer is a Fort Lauderdale native, and has also published a volume of rip-roaring rock concert photography. He has worked for Florida newspapers and magazines, and taught photography locally. His photo of Eddie Van Halen was recently used by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their brochures and splashed on their roadside and airport billboards.
But as you can see by the art on these pages, it’s not all rock ’n’ roll to him anymore. A close-up of a bee gathering pollen on a Bonnet House flower, for example, was the cover shot (with as much buzz as Van Halen, I’m sure) on an issue of Bee Culture magazine.