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The Long Road to Preservation: Bonnet House Museum & Gardens by J. Kent Planck

By November 8, 2013Bonnet House Blog

Outside of house

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.

By 1975, the City of Fort Lauderdale renewed its interest in Bonnet House, not for a street expansion, but as part of an effort to expand the city’s park space.  At the same time, the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale was making plans to build a new art museum.  Might there be synergy between these two seemingly independent visions? At the behest of City Manager Dick Anderson, the Trust for Public Land—a national not-for-profit organization that helps communities plan and raise money to acquire and revitalize land for conservation and public use—agreed to assist the city’s quest for new park land and on July 8, 1976, made a proposal to Ray George regarding Bonnet House:  (1) to turn the property into the “Frederic C. Bartlett Center for the Arts” – essentially, a house museum with artist-in-residence quarters in the main house, and with the Island Theater restored as a performance venue;  (2) to preserve and enhance the grounds with marked trails and boardwalks;  (3) to seek designation of the property as a bird sanctuary;  and (4) to construct buildings for “charitable purposes” on the western, undeveloped half of the estate – possibly, with the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale in mind. Evelyn approved the plan, and on December 15, 1976 she signed an option for the Trust to buy the rear 15.7799 acres of the Bonnet House property.  The price would be “substantially less” than market value and the difference would “be deemed a charitable gift from Seller to Buyer.”   The Trust would then sell the property to the City for use by the Museum of Art. For the time being, the fate of the eastern portion of the property containing the estate house itself was left unaddressed. But the road ahead proved rocky.  Though both local newspapers and the public seemed favorably disposed to the city buying the property through the Trust for Public Land and allowing the Museum of Art to build on it, numerous issues arose for all concerned.  The Fort Lauderdale City Commission was unable to come to consensus on the purchase because of issues ranging from pure political jockeying to genuine concerns about the city acquiring land so close to the already preserved Birch State Park.  Perhaps most important of all, at least one commissioner desired some sort of commitment on the part of Evelyn – a commitment she was not disposed to give – that the city could also eventually acquire the eastern half of the property which contained the estate house itself. Even so, the Museum of Art proceeded with securing cash and pledges amounting to some $6.5 million – far more than was needed to construct its anticipated building.  The Museum also secured the initial commitment of lending institutions for construction loans, though it was clear from the beginning that loan underwriting requirements would require Evelyn to soften the restrictions she was placing on future use of the property.  Seeking a world-class facility, the Museum hired noted architect, Edward Larabee Barnes of New York, who drew elaborate plans for a modernistic 62,000 square-foot building with 12,000 square feet of exhibit space.  The building would feature multiple three-story towers, a 280-seat auditorium, a central open courtyard, numerous meeting rooms, a bookstore, and a kitchen, and be adjoined by a 178-car parking lot.   Soil samples were taken and building permits were obtained.

But by the end of September 1979, it was clear that a new art museum on the Bonnet House site was simply not to be.  Political will to go forward had waned on the City Commission, lending institutions for construction of the new museum  could not accept the financial risks associated with the restrictions Evelyn steadfastly insisted run with ownership, and the Trust for Public Land allowed its purchase option to lapse when the Museum of Art consequently decided to pursue opportunities in downtown Fort Lauderdale for their new building.  The elusive goal of preserving Bonnet House would have to be deferred to the ninth decade of Evelyn’s life, the 1980s.

In 1980, the search for alternatives to preserve Bonnet House began anew.  Various possibilities including use of the property by the University of Miami for a remote campus and “wintertime” programming by the Aspen Institute were considered.  None panned out, however, and in October Ray George wrote R. Dillon Ripley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, on Evelyn’s behalf, asking if the Smithsonian Institution itself might be interested in acquiring the property.  Ripley wrote back graciously to thank Evelyn for thinking of the Smithsonian but cautioned that he “must not raise anybody’s hopes at this point.” Still seeking to be of assistance, Ripley wrote the National Trust for Historic Preservation in April 1981to inquire of any potential interest there.  National Trust president Michael Ainslie replied that the Trust was simply too stretched by other acquisitions and, in any event, would need to have a more substantial endowment accompany the property than the one-million dollars Evelyn was prepared to give.  Ainslie also indicated that he believed the relatively new Florida Trust for Historic Preservation – that had been created to save the old state capital in Tallahassee from destruction – also most likely could not take on the property “in their early life.” But Ripley was not to be deterred.  On May 15, 1981 he wrote to Florida Trust president Joan Jennewein recommending that her organization consider the acquisition and preservation of the Bonnet House property and suggested a site visit. The following October, Jennewein visited the property accompanied by a group that had been formed to consider the acquisition. The Florida Trust group clearly was impressed with what they saw.  “We think it’s a tremendous property, to see that type of preserve in a densely populated area,” said Florida Trust board member Sally Jude. Things seemed all but official by the following April 1982 when the Florida Trust issued a “preliminary proposal” on acquiring the property.  The proposal said that the Trust’s stated objective would be “to stabilize, renovate and maintain the [house], its outbuildings and the surrounding grounds so that this Florida landmark retains its original appearance,” and it proposed using the property as a house museum with secondary educational functions compatible with preserving and providing adequate funding for maintenance. Under the preservation agreement, the property would have to be maintained exactly as it had been when Evelyn and Frederic were there together in the 1930s and 1940s.  Prohibitions included:  the addition of structures other than those designed to enable visitors to enjoy the estate; the adding or removal of any natural materials or the performing of any other work on the grounds except as necessary for “permitted uses,” and the destruction or removal of any plantings.  Development on the eastern portion of property where the house is located was severely limited.  The agreement also prohibited any sale of land from or any development on, the western portion of the property except as might be deemed necessary to generate funds for operating and maintaining the estate.  Further, the agreement stated that all restrictions were to be enforceable by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  The only other string Evelyn attached to the gift was the requirement that she be allowed to spend her winters there as long as she lived.  With Evelyn living until just three months before her 110th birthday in 1997, the last requirement would turn into a far longer commitment than the board of the Florida Trust most likely ever imagined. On October 8, 1983 the deed for Bonnet House was conveyed to the Florida Trust, and on November 20, the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel reported that the deed had been filed at the Broward County Courthouse two days earlier.  In addition, the Florida legislature had, in effect, doubled Evelyn’s one-million dollar endowment with a million-dollar matching grant from the state.   Bonnet House was now officially the property of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, a private organization based in Tallahassee and dedicated to promoting “preservation of the architectural, historical and archeological heritage of Florida through advocacy, education and historic property stewardship.” The estate was the first property acquired by the Trust and, in fact, the only one to be owned by it for nearly 30 years.  Valued at approximately $35 million at the time of the acquisition, the Bonnet House donation constituted the largest charitable contribution that had been made in the state of Florida.  The Florida Trust subsequently created a separate organization, Bonnet House, Inc., to manage the estate, and named board member and long-time Evelyn friend Jack Wilcox as Evelyn’s personal representative to the board. In 1984, the estate was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In her zeal to protect Bonnet House, Evelyn Bartlett may have at first seemed to endanger its long-term preservation by the numerous and seemingly “deal-breaking restrictions” she required of any agreement.  In the end, however, she appears to have been vindicated in her approach.  Unlike what would have been the case had the City of Fort Lauderdale acquired only part of the land and allowed an unrelated museum to have been built on the western half of it, now the Bonnet House property would be preserved intact, just as Evelyn and Frederic had known it in their days together there.

One Comment

  • Margaret Hack Merlino says:

    My brother, George Hack, was hired by Carl Weinhardt, the person responsible for overseeing the restoration of the Bonnet House, as a carpenter to help with the restoration. I was in my early 20’s when this was taking place and I got to spend a lot of time on the property before it was open to the public. I remember so many amazing things about the place, especially Hans and Heidi, the white German Shepherds who guarded the grounds, and all the monkeys in the trees who would come eat out of your hand when you yelled “peanuts” to them.

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