I’m all for art, but would anyone think that building a Guggenheim Museum at Walden Pond is a good idea? How about this plan? “Enhance” the Bonnet House estate – one of the last pieces of green space left in the city, that marvelous reserve of indigenous and cultivated natural beauty – by constructing a modernistic, 62,000-square-foot art museum, multiple three-story buildings and a 178-car parking lot.
“No, no, no,” say those who have tasted the sweet sanctuary that is the Bonnet House Museum & Gardens.
Well, fortunately in the late 1970s the city commission, initially excited by this idea, wilted when banks started to balk. The aim was noble: preserving the 35-acre estate – set on a natural barrier island and named after the lily that grows there – at a time when its sole owner was getting up in years and looking to donate it intact. Her name was Evelyn Fortune Lilly, an artist who, with her husband, surrounded their Caribbean-style home with trees and plants from around the world and filled it with art, collectibles and passionate design.
Amidst the malls, condominiums and beer joints nearby, Lilly wanted to save their idyllic creation for future generations.
The “enhancement” deal fell through because of Lilly’s strict demands for preserving the estate intact. Eventually, a private organization called the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation agreed to maintain the estate, with her conditions, one of which was that she could continue living out her years there. When the estate was donated in 1983, it was valued at $35 million, making it the largest charitable gift at the time in Florida.
Now that gift is open to tourists, wedding parties, orchid classes and numerous community events – not to mention locals seeking nature’s serenity.
The property originally included what we now call Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, on the north side of Sunrise Boulevard between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. The park’s namesake was a wealthy Chicago lawyer and landowner who, like many of our city’s pioneers, fell in love with our subtropical climate and started spending his winters here. In 1919, when the area’s population numbered in the hundreds, the naturalist and vegetarian split off the Bonnet House property as a wedding gift to his daughter, Helen Louise, and her husband, Chicago artist Frederic Bartlett. The house itself was begun in 1920, but after Helen died of cancer only six years later, Bartlett seldom visited. All that changed when he married Evelyn Lilly and the compound became their canvas.
Make no mistake, these were wealthy people with money to burn: the Lilly in Evelyn’s name is the same Lilly as in the pharmaceuticals giant. But they burned their money on beauty and left it for all of us. Even their car was Gatsbyesque – a 1941 Cadillac Deluxe Sedan convertible, one of only 400 made.
One perspective on the estate’s heyday comes from a caretaker’s surviving daughter. A few years ago, Irene Carey Hart told the Sun Sentinel of a happy childhood spent among the fruit trees, exotic birds, monkeys and raccoons. Besides going for dips into the ocean (through a path in the forested dunes, still there), she’d also pop out to the road and “run to the bridge to get a ride.” In those days the Sunrise Boulevard bridge was a swing bridge – and it was hand-cranked.
The bridge there today has six lanes, but the estate a block east on Birch Road still has the same crunched-shell driveway, the same lily ponds, the same gumbo limbos, lipstick bushes, starfruit and rangpur lime trees Frederic Bartlett planted. Two glorious swans lounge waterside and monkeys still shriek and scamper among the high branches.
Lilly surprised herself and everyone else by living until the 1990s, passing on just short of her 110th birthday. If I could speak to her, I’d say, “Thanks for holding out.”
For Bonnet House hours, tour information and directions, visit bonnethouse.org or call 954-563-5393.