The Bonnet House and Gardens: Bohemian Grandeur

The Bonnet House and Gardens is not an imposing palace. Instead, it is warm, with a Bohemian sense of fun, and lush, casual gardens, which invite you to repasse. My guest and I both felt we could move right in.


Even the house’s name was born in delight. When alligators would pop their heads up in the canal a water lily often sat on their head. The family joked that they looked like bonnets and Bonnet House was named. No Bonnet ever resided there, despite relatives of late “Auntie Bonnet” that request free tickets.

Evelyn Bartlett gifted it to the state in the 1980s with the condition that she still “winter” there until her death.

“She lived to be 109-years-old, and came here every winter until 1995. Evelyn passed away in 1997 two months before she would have turned 110,” said Stephen Draft, Curator of the Bonnet House. “She kept everything,” boasted Draft, in the kitchen now stripped back to the 1930s and 40s. “The house was virtually unchanged when she passed away.” In fact, 95% of the objects held by the Bonnet House were once personal effects held at the estate. The other 5% were largely shipped down here from their northern homes, for the archives and to assist in research.

However, Evelyn was not the first mistress of Bonnet House. It was a wedding gift to her husband’s previous, late wife from her father. After she died, Frederic did not return to the house until Evelyn urged him.

Frederic Bartlett was something of a rebel. Rather than take over the family business he studied art at the Royal Academy of Munich, and many of his works can still be seen in Chicago. At one time he owned the famed Seurat painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”

The first structure built on the then-50 acre parcel of land – now 35 acres – was Bartlett’s great hall-like art studio with a massive window to flood the interior with Florida light. Much of the decoration at Bonnet House was completed by Charles himself, including paintings and portraits adorning walls, and masterful ceiling murals.

A loggia off the living room has a nautical ceiling – fish, shells and nautical items, are painted on a blue sea surrounding a large turtle. When Evelyn said it lacked something, Charles told her to complete it. So Evelyn painted a net. As an artist her husband often said she was his “best find.”

The sparsely elegant, cedar paneled-dining room, with cabinets filled with antique porcelain, exudes Bohemian qualities as well.

“Charles made this chandelier out of the metal bands on nail barrels and crystals he brought back from Austria,” Draft explained about the relatively simple, clever, light fixture.

A temple-like shell museum, bamboo bar, and small movie theater supports the idea of this being a very personal hideaway. A small, carefree, brightly painted pavilion next to a round lake hosted cocktail soirees. Comfortable, tufted, leather, Victorian armchairs sit casually in the living room, confirming high style was secondary at Bonnet House.

Playfully, animals are a central motif in the overall design. Carousel animals and Southeast Asian carved animals are playfully positioned everywhere in the courtyard.

The gardens here are well-kept in a natural manner, with a few simple additions such as a bank of royal palms along a canal, an allee – a tree lined drive in the French manner, and an old sea grape tree pruned to look like a giant Bonsai. The descendants of Evelyn’s 1200 orchids hang from trees. The garden also has specialists who tag and remove non-native species, and is thus a center for ecology.

The Bartlett’s were also very forward thinking. When the police came to remove their largely African-American staff from the beachfront Mr. and Mrs. Bartlett came down from the house and reminded the police they owned it, and it was not public property. They would not enforce segregation on their beach, the staff were their guests.

The house is vastly different from seaside villas such as Vizcaya, or the Breakers in Newport. These homes astound you with sheer decadence. At The Bonnet House and Gardens what astounds is the intimate scale and friendly atmosphere.

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