Just three miles from bustling downtown Fort Lauderdale, on thirty-five acres nestled between the Intercoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean, lies this hidden oasis: the Bonnet House Museum and Gardens and the adjacent Hugh Taylor Birch State Park. Thanks to its original owners, this little piece of old Florida coast has been preserved and protected for us to enjoy today.
Seeking escape from the hustle and bustle taking over his home town of Chicago due to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, prominent Chicago attorney Hugh Taylor Birch set off to find peace and tranquility. Florida’s east coast was just being opened up to tourism by Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railway, with its southern-most stop at Titusville, Florida. Birch rode the train to its last stop, then sailed further down the coast to explore the lush coastal wilderness. Fate had it that an unexpected storm blew him ashore on present day Fort Lauderdale beach. Being an admirer of nature and the serenity it offers, he was inspired by what he saw. This land had been inhabited by the Tequesta people, visited by European explorers, and in 1876 a House of Refuge was built nearby as a shelter for shipwrecked sailors. Believing this was his destiny, he bought over three miles of oceanfront property. As an early “snowbird” avoiding the harsh northern winters, this would become his winter retreat.
Seven hundred feet of this oceanfront property, extending west to the Intercoastal Waterway for thirty-five acres, became the Bonnet House property. Birch gifted this land to his daughter, Helen, when she married Frederic Clay Bartlett. Helen, a musician, composer, and poet, shared her father’s appreciation of nature. Frederic, an artist, craftsman, and designer who had studied art in Europe for seven years, was the designer of Bonnet House, and together with Birch, oversaw the construction which began in 1920. The name of the House comes from a bonnet lily that grew on the wetland section of the property. The design accommodated an indoor-outdoor life style, with a sense of whimsy, and included a music room for Helen, and an art studio for Frederic. Helen and Frederic were art collectors and some of their exotic findings were used to decorate the Bonnet House. Helen’s early death to breast cancer in 1925 was a strong blow for Frederic and Birch, and Frederic abandoned his work on the house for a while. In honor of his wife, Frederic donated an important post-impressionist art collection to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1926, the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection. This included paintings by Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, and other masterpieces, including Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.”
In 1931 Frederic married Evelyn Fortune Lilly, ex-wife of pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly, and resumed work on Bonnet House. Evelyn, an ardent gardener and animal devotee, influenced the ongoing creation of the property. She grew orchids and among some of the animals she brought to live on the estate were small monkeys. Frederic encouraged her artistic skills and a room in the House is dedicated to her vivid paintings. To preserve the property, Evelyn donated it to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983. She continued to maintain and winter at Bonnet House till 1995. She passed away at the age 109 in 1997.
Hugh Taylor Birch, an early Fort Lauderdale pioneer, has left an enduring legacy of old Florida’s natural beauty, as can be appreciated in the Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, squarely in the heart of today’s bustling Fort Lauderdale beach on E. Sunrise Boulevard. In 1941, Birch donated 180 acres of practically undisturbed natural environment to the State of Florida, and three miles of beach with the provision that it be kept accessible to the public.
Bonnet House Museum & Gardens
900 North Birch Road
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304
Hugh Taylor Birch State Park