Stepping through the royal blue front door of Bonnet House Museum & Gardens does not signal a step back in time but rather an entrée into a wondrous world of imagination, one that feels as relevant now as it did 100 years ago. Built in 1920, it has evolved from a private home to a cultural gem the entire community can enjoy.
As CEO Patrick Shavloske notes, Bonnet House’s roots greatly impact how visitors interact with the property, which includes the main home and varied garden landscapes. It all began in 1919 when Frederic Clay Bartlett and his wife Helen Birch received 35 acres on Fort Lauderdale Beach as a wedding present from Helen’s father. Frederic, who was an established artist, began sketching designs for the home. Helen died in 1925, and Frederic remarried Evelyn Fortune Lilly in 1931.
“There was a real artistic synergy between Evelyn and Frederic, and the house looks as it does today because of her,” says Shavloske. Although untrained, Evelyn was an artist in her own right. Bonnet House was Evelyn and Frederic’s winter estate, and they devoted as much energy to decorating the home as they did to painting.
“This was a place where they could come, create artwork, and just enjoy Florida,” continues Shavloske. “The Bartletts were not slave to fashion. They had very much their own personal aesthetic.”
Visitors can view works by Frederic and Evelyn while on guided tours of the home. From the iron railings sourced from New Orleans to distinct Egyptian and Caribbean flourishes, the house itself is a pastiche of influences, explains Shavloske. “Frederic always said that he was a sponge, that he took in all kinds of artistic styles and then put them together into his own unique style.”
Bonnet House’s artistic heritage informs its current programming. In addition to public painting classes, fine artist members can paint en plein air in the gardens at their leisure. There are also seasonal outdoor concerts and an International Orchid & Garden Festival, scheduled for April 4-5. This year’s highlight, however, is the Centennial Soiree on April 25, which will boast a Jazz Age feel and feature art as entertainment.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Bonnet House is that it’s an authentic reflection of the Bartletts’ life, with 99 percent of its items original to the property. For example, Evelyn’s love of animals is apparent, from the Purina dog bowl in the drawing room to the birdcage and antique carousel menagerie in the courtyard. Frederic’s numerous creative endeavors are on display, too, including his portraits of Evelyn (look for the one of her with two left feet, a humorous hint at her poor dancing skills), hand-painted ceilings, and intricate shell work.
“If you came and saw one of their home movies, they would expect you to pay admission with a set of shells,” says Shavloske. He adds that honoring the world in which the Bartletts lived is paramount to the Bonnet House mission. “If the Bartletts came back today, they would feel right at home.”