For decades, Frederic and Evelyn Bartlett were pursued by developers wanting to acquire the Bonnet House estate for residential or commercial development. Frederic and his second wife Helen Birch had even fled to Europe in 1924 to escape a near-constant barrage of offers. Such pursuit continued, largely unabated, throughout the 1930s and 40s. In the years immediately preceding Frederic Bartlett’s death in 1953, the City of Fort Lauderdale had been seeking a solution to what was felt to be too-heavy traffic along State Road A1A which by then separated the eastern perimeter of the Bonnet House estate from its beach.
The city’s hope had been to persuade the Bartletts to allow an alternate north-south route to be cut through the middle of their property. This was to be accomplished by extending the existing Birch Road through the center of the estate. The Bartletts steadfastly resisted, and following Frederic’s death, the city quietly dropped the subject. Although Frederic and Evelyn Bartlett had long managed to fend off efforts to develop the Bonnet House property, Evelyn by the 1970s – widowed and already in her eighties – became increasingly concerned about what would happen to the estate and to Frederic’s creative legacy after her death. Even though she was still residing comfortably at Bonnet House, the property had become badly frayed around the edges – woodwork damaged and paint peeling, wiring in dangerous need of updating, the grounds heavily overgrown – problems that, though well within Evelyn’s financial ability to correct, were seemingly too extensive for an 80-year-old widow to deal with. Consequently, Evelyn became increasingly determined to ensure that the magical estate created by her artistic husband be somehow preserved and returned to its former glory. “There’s nothing left along the shore, you know, nothing except this place, from Miami to Palm Beach,” she would later say. “I don’t want it to change.” Evelyn began considering possibilities for preservation, and in this effort enlisted the assistance of her financial advisor, Raymond E. George, Senior Vice President at the Northern Trust Bank in Chicago.
Early on, they agreed to change the property’s mailing address to that of the bank in Chicago so that inquiries from developers would be directed to the bank by public records, and Evelyn could thus be spared dealing with continuing advances and proposals. Throughout a more than ten-year preservation effort, Evelyn remained steadfast that, not only must the property be protected from commercial developers, but also that any organization granted ownership and responsibility for preserving it must be forever prevented from making commercial additions incompatible with running the estate as a museum, cultural center or nature preserve. As early as 1972, Ray George asked the Nature Conservancy’s Christopher Dann, Vice President and Director of Development, if there existed precedents of land being conveyed by gift to a municipal government – as one possible and public way to ensure preservation. Dann said there were, and suggested ways that such a public conveyance of Bonnet House could be made, not only to the city of Fort Lauderdale, but perhaps to the State of Florida because of the property’s proximity to Birch State Park. Other possible candidates for taking Bonnet House in the early 1970s included the American Horticultural Society and the Audubon Society.