Helen Birch

Docent Diaries: Bonnet House and the Prairie Avenue Connection

The entrance to Bonnet House
For many years, before I became a volunteer docent at the Clarke House and Glessner House museums, I vacationed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I would pass by Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, wondering who Mr. Birch was and why he had a park named for him. It wasn’t until I started my docent training that I learned about Birch. Birch was not only significant to Chicago history, but Florida history as well. On my most recent trip to Fort Lauderdale, I took a tour of Bonnet House and learned a little bit more about Birch and his extended family.

South Florida Paradise
Birch was a prominent corporate attorney who lived at 1912 S. Michigan Avenue and was part of Prairie Avenue society. A bit of an eccentric, Birch shunned crowds and preferred a more casual lifestyle. In the late 1890s, Birch traveled by train to Titusville, Florida, the end of the line for the railroad in those days. He then sailed further south by boat, encountering a storm that forced his ship ashore. When Birch saw the tropical beauty of the South Florida coast, he decided he needed to live there. He bought three miles of oceanfront property, that is now part of present-day Fort Lauderdale, for less than $1.00 per acre. According to the Genealogical Society of Broward County (GSBC), silent film director D.W. Griffith offered Birch $250,000 in 1920 for 2/3 of the land, but Birch refused the offer.

A Generous Wedding Present
View of the bird house in courtyard
In 1919, Birch’s daughter, Helen married artist and Prairie Avenue resident, Frederic Clay Bartlett (2901 S. Prairie Avenue). As a wedding gift, Birch gave the newlyweds 30 acres—a piece of his Florida estate. In 1920, construction, of what would eventually be known as Bonnet House (named for the bonnet lilies found on the estate), began and would continue for more than 20 years.

“Eclectic” Design
Bartlett was an artist and designer.  Among his works are the thirteen pre-Raphaelite murals that adorn Second Presbyterian Church at 1936 S. Michigan Avenue.  He had a practical interest in architecture and designed every aspect of Bonnet House. The home was modeled after a Caribbean-style plantation as interpreted by Bartlett. It includes a large courtyard with fountains and gardens. Almost every wall of the courtyard is decorated with paintings, pieces or art, and cultural artifacts from Europe and Asia. The docent that led my tour said there is no discernible decorating style. He described it as “eclectic,” which fits just fine. Bartlett painted almost every inch of the house, including intricate designs on the courtyard ceilings, walls, and floors. While the estate is large, it is not luxurious. Both Birch and Bartlett had luxurious homes in Chicago and elsewhere, but craved a more casual lifestyle. Fort Lauderdale, in the early 20th century was a sparsely populated tropical paradise that suited both men perfectly.

Carousel giraffes are typical of the whimsical artwork throughout the house

Art and Music Lovers
Frederic and Helen loved to travel around the world. During their travels, they purchased many Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, including A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges-Pierre Seurat. Helen was a talented pianist and composer, having several of her compositions copyrighted and published. Bartlett had his artist studio on one end of Bonnet House and Helen had her music studio on the other.

A swan swims in a pond on the estate
Helen died of cancer in 1925 and Frederic lost interest in their tropical retreat. He donated their important collection of paintings, including works by Picasso, Degas, and Matisse to the Art Institute of Chicago.  It was the first major collection of post-Impressionist paintings to be acquired and exhibited by an American museum. 

Six years after Helen’s death, Frederic married Evelyn Fortune Lilly, who was divorced from Eli Lilly. After their marriage, Evelyn convinced Frederic to return to the estate and the two turned Bonnet House into a one-of-a-kind retreat. The house looks pretty much the way it did during the 1930s and 1940s.

Frederic died in 1953. Evelyn continued to live and entertain at Bonnet House after Frederic’s death. She eventually gifted the estate to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983, but continued to winter there until 1997 as part of the trust agreement. Evelyn died on July 1, 1997 at the age of 109.

Wrought iron railings were crafted in New Orleans

Bonnet House Survives
Bonnet House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a City of Fort Lauderdale Historic Landmark. If you have the opportunity to visit Fort Lauderdale, a tour of Bonnet House is a must.  For further information, visit their website, http://www.bonnethouse.org/


Submitted by Stephen Reginald, Clarke House and Glessner House volunteer docent. Reginald is also a writer, editor, neighborhood blogger, and amateur classic film historian.