Exploring coastal history in urban Florida

Artwork, artist Frederic Bartlett studio, Bonnet House, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Frederic Bartlett’s studio in the Bonnet House in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

In the middle of bustling Fort Lauderdale, Florida, there are two remnants of coastal wilderness: The Bonnet House and the nearby Hugh Birch Taylor State Park.

The Bonnet House

In 1893 Chicago attorney Hugh Taylor Birch bought ocean-front land on a Florida barrier island for about $1 per acre.

When his daughter Helen married artist Frederic Bartlett in 1919, Birch gave them 35 acres as a present.

The newlyweds set about building an informal home called Bonnet House (named after the bonnet lily), where they could enjoy nature and pursue their artistic passions—painting, growing orchids, collecting art and seashells, and entertaining guests. Everything they needed had to be shipped in, including the cement to be mixed with local sand and formed into building blocks. The endeavor was cut short when Helen died in 1925.

In 1931, Bartlett married Evelyn Fortune Lilly (former wife of Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical concern’s founder). Together, they continued building on to the Bonnet House until its final state included bedrooms, a kitchen and pantry, a formal dining room, informal study, a music room, a tiny bar, a greenhouse, guests rooms and a spacious artist studio.

Accordingly to her obituary in the New York Times, “In the lush gardens she cultivated at Bonnet House, a 35-acre estate in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., she could recount how and where every plant, ornament and tile was bought and installed. She grew many varieties of orchids, put black and white swans in the estate’s ponds and bought 30 to 40 monkeys for its trees.”

Before she passed away at age 109 in Beverly, Massachusetts, Helen donated the house to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation so that we can all enjoy the unique homestead.

Interesting note: Bonnet House was the finish line for the seventh season of the hit CBS reality show “The Amazing Race.”

Hugh Taylor Birch State Park

Hugh Taylor Birch donated his subtropical 180-acre estate for use as a public park. Not only does it provide safe haven for gopher tortoises and gray foxes, but it gives visitors a place to:

  • Canoe or kayak along a freshwater lagoon
  • Hike two trails
  • Birdwatch for herons, wading birds and egrets
  • Bike or skate along the paved park drive
  • Fish along a seawall by the Intracoastal Waterway
  • Access the beach
  • Gather at picnic areas
  • Enjoy two playgrounds
Banyon tree, Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
For me, the main attraction at the Hugh Taylor Birch State Park was the giant Banyon tree.


About Kristine K. Stevens

Book Cover200Kristine is the author of "If Your Dream Doesn't Scare You, It Isn't Big Enough: A Solo Journey Around the World." This nonfiction book tells the story of how she sold her house, quit her job and traveled around the world.

Kirkus Book Review: "... Stevens makes a friendly, relatable narrator ... plenty of colorful stories to make this an enjoyable, inspiring read... An often sweet memoir about finding oneself in many different places."

Next travel book to spotlight Iceland

25817249396_f6c787ef9f_z Kristine broke free from a desk job once again, and this time ended up volunteering in the far corners of Iceland!

Details about the release of this book will be posted on Facebook.