Bonnet House Museum & Gardens

Bonnet House Museum & Gardens


Posted 2022-09-30 by Gail Clifford MDfollow

The name Frederic Clay Bartlett will be familiar to those in the world of post-impressionist and early 20th century modern art but will be new to most. During a press trip to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, we were invited to tour Bonnet House, an estate nearly 100 years old that continues to flourish as a self-sustaining entity through donations, admission, and event fees. It was here at Bonnet House where Mr. Syd, a gregarious and well-informed Boston transplant wove a tale of love found and sometimes lost. For Mr. Bartlett, though lucky in love, with three devoted sequential wives, was not as lucky with their health. The first, who he'd married after his post-secondary school European tour and art school, the mother of his only child, died of pneumonia.

Frederic was a prolific painter and a successful commercial one. Born into wealth, his father was a founding partner of the company that is today's True Value, Frederic earned his own fortune with commissions even early in his career that would equal over a million dollars in today's money.

He married a friend of hers, second wife, Helen Louise Birch, whose father had moved to the area that is now Fort Lauderdale. Together, the newlyweds would build Bonnet House. Mr. Sid Goldenberg tells us that Helen wasn't much of a painter but was quite the creative, becoming a world-renowned pianist and composer. She supported her husband's talent and, together, they built the home he would live in whenever wintering in Fort Lauderdale. They would continue to live in Beverly, Massachusetts or travel extensively at other times of the year. She died of cancer in 1925 and Frederic was devastated, mourning for nearly five years.

Enter the estate through tremendous wrought iron fences and enjoy a golf cart ride to the front of the house. Welcoming fountains greet you to a desert garden or the lush Florida jungle beyond. Within the estate, you'll find five different ecosystems thanks to the growth and sustainability the couple created.

It's here that the Director of Education left us with our guide for the home, Mr. Sid. He points out the fossilized remnants of sea life that will remain with the property forever.

Walk along the outer edge of the building to see the yellow bonnets scattered across "The Slough" alongside the home and enter a second area, what became the studio of Frederic's third wife, Evelyn (pronounced EVE-LYNN) Fortune Lilly, also from a wealthy family and a dear friend of his second wife.

Included in this visitors' welcome area is artwork that makes you wonder if Clark Gable was a frequent visitor (it's Frederic and Evelyn's daughter, a teen when they married in the portrait), and a movie that provides the history of the house. No time to visit the studio during our two-hour tour, it could be a tour unto itself, we're invited back to look afterwards.

From there, we return to the grand entrance, the enormous white arch with a fish flying overhead, through stunning sunny yellow grill-like posts painted on a midnight blue sky door

but let your guide get in front of you so they can turn and hear that delighted "gasp" as you enter the tropical oasis, a fountain in the center and sensory overload as your eyes take in the flora and fauna, including a birdhouse, both live and depicted within the space.

The covered pathways, or loggia, protect the artwork and artifacts collected by the Bartletts through their lifetimes.

From Frederic's paintings to dowry boxes, and retired carousel animals to larger-than-life monkeys to hold the calling card of arriving guests, the collector's nature of the owner seeps into your consciousness.

Better still for visitors who don't have the opportunity to meet Mr. Sid, there is a self-guided mobile app for the house tour.

We don't visit any of the upstairs bedrooms (reached by a circular staircase through the observation tower), but the artist's studio, which is so stupendous that it can only be fully captured in a panoramic shot. But here's a corner with our guide. The picture above was of such importance to a religious group that the Bonnet House Foundation had a reproduction made and sold to provide funds for repairs and upkeep of the House. Most of the other paintings in the studio were created by Frederic.

We enjoyed the tour of the kitchen and viewed some of the extensive dish collection. One guest was there for several weeks and reportedly stated "I never saw the same pattern twice." They had personal chefs, one who traveled with the last Mrs. Bartlett between Bonnet House and her home in Beverly, MA until her death. While the kitchen allows for an introduction to ancient model kitchen conveniences, the fans force you to remember there was no air conditioning during this time and no matter how smart you are about catching the ocean breezes, it's going to be hot in Fort Lauderdale all summer. They left the family that watched the estate there year-round which made their beach one of inclusion. If you weren't part of the Bartlett staff and were a person of color, you forced to travel all the way to Dania Beach during segregation.

The dining room is a combination eating space and showroom. With multiple tables in place, china plates and figurines and crystal line the walls as the upper sections are filled with fish and turtles the couple had taxidermized to enjoy forever. Their artistic and whimsical touches persist to the chandelier with crystal flower patterns in each leaf or the sea turtle skull overhanging the door. I counted 71 individually painted tiles around the door between the dining room and kitchen and was told these came from an estate sale.

In the next loggia we find two of the estate's three monkey sculptures, with the calling card plate ready and waiting. Unlike the carousel giraffe we meet, these eyes don't follow us.

We enter the drawing room, an un-air-conditioned but remarkably cool room, jam-packed with possessions this couple loved. From the desk and telephone at the entry, to the sofas, paintings (including Frederic's son and a well-loved fisherman) fruit covered lamps found at auction, and a special marmot that Mrs. Bartlett was convinced if she rubbed its head each day and had a special cocktail, she would have a long and happy life.

The Music Room is our final stop in the house. We're fortunate to have a private tour. From hearing the fate of the other 85 key Steinway pianos (the largest bonfire Atlantic City, NJ ever saw) to the incredible feat of art you see here reflected in the mirror. This Veiled Woman, created by Giovanni Baptista Lombardi, an Italian sculptor, has a twin in New York's Metropolitan Museum. But that's not a veil made of cloth, that's actually made of stone, so the sculptor had to have the technique to form both the face and the veil at the same time. As Mr. Sid jokes, "if it chips while you're starting it you can't crazy glue it together. You must start all over." These types of treasures are found throughout the house and may make one start to consider the legacy they leave with what's in one's own house.

Sadly, the floor in the Music Room was the final painting of Frederic's lifetime. Just days after completing it, he suffered a stroke that left him unable to paint. He lived four more years, dying at home in Beverly, Massachusetts.

Now, we start to explore the grounds. First is the Shell Complex.

It includes the Shell Museum, Orchid House, and Bamboo Bar. There are more shells on display here than I've ever seen.

On our grounds tour, we learned the Bartletts had their own movie theater and charged admission… seashells.

Here, too, is a bar and Mrs. Bartlett's favorite cocktail, the Rangpur Lime. They offer classes as well as event space.

Our grounds tour was a whirlwind of unfamiliar, tropical names as well as some species that occur across the country. From oak and cypress to cabbage palm (Florida's State Tree), seagrape, frangipani, gumbo limbo, and strangler fig. We spotted a golden orb weaver and learned that both black widows and brown recluse spiders are native to this area.

We passed a group of school children participating in an educational tour, the movie theater, and the shed, where the tractor named Rosie replaced the mule named Rosie when she "went to her reward."

Dropped off in the parking lot, our minds whirl with all we have seen. You could spend days in each room, trying to understand the width, breadth, and depth of the collections the Bartletts created. And all of it came from one man who loved each of his wives deeply and well, was productive in his artistic endeavors and supportive of others, nurturing his last wife to develop her artistic abilities so that she, too, could enjoy the creative outlet and further advance their home to the showplace it is today.

Many thanks to the Bonnet House and Fort Lauderdale CVB for hosting us for this glorious tour. All opinions herein are my own.

#art -and-craft-centres
93957 - 2023-06-12 01:07:19


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