Life Lessons Learned from Some of South Florida’s Early Developers

Melinda Crow

You don’t have to be wealthy to leave behind a legacy.

Photo of Bonnet House Estate and Hugh Taylor Birch State Park by Melinda Crow

I recently had the opportunity to visit the historic Bonnet House in Fort Lauderdale. Built in 1920, it sits on 35 acres of prime South Florida real estate — part of the original 3.5-mile stretch of ocean-front property purchased by Chicago banker, Hugh Taylor Birch in the mid-1890s.

As I wandered the buildings and gardens in this surprising oasis surrounded by the high-rise condominium buildings the area is famous for, I found myself thinking not only of the craziness of what Birch, and subsequently his family, did on the estate but about the lessons we could all learn from them.

Learn to trust your vision

It’s hard to imagine what the raw coastal barrier island of Florida must have been like when Birch first visited the village of Fort Lauderdale. The famous highway A1A was barely a dirt track and a walk to the beach involved hacking through the jungle with machetes. No one else wanted the land he fell in love with and purchased for around $1 per acre.

A quick search of today’s Fort Lauderdale real estate prices online turned up a vacant lot just over half an acre in size — not on the beach, but on the Intracoastal Waterway, priced at over $12 million.

Birch had a vision and he believed in it deeply.

There will always be a swamp to bog you down

You know that the Everglades are managed by man-made canals and pump stations now, right? It’s to keep most of Broward County from returning to the swamp it once was. Birch saw past the swamp, all the way to the Atlantic, while his contemporaries limited their vision to the muck at their feet.

The challenges that that swamp presented in terms of transportation and marketability of the property must have been enormous at the time, and there’s no doubt that it slowed his progress because Bonnet House was not built until 1920.

And yet, he persevered.

Don’t let the mosquitoes keep you away

Yellow fever was rampant in Florida around the turn of the century because as we know, swamps breed mosquitoes.

It’s easy to allow the tiniest of things to stand in the way of our own progress, but Birch and family moved forward in spite of the mosquitoes and the potential diseases they carried.

You may have to dig a trench…

As the construction of Bonnet House got underway in 1920, it became apparent that there were things needed for the project that were too large for the bridges that existed over the waterway.

Not a problem for Birch’s son-in-law, artist Frederick Clay Bartlett, who designed and oversaw the construction of the family house.

He simply dug a trench from the property to the Intracoastal and used barges to bring in what they needed.

… and make your own building blocks

At a time when most homes in the area were built of wood because timber was abundant and clay for bricks was not, Bartlett opted for concrete blocks made on site. It was considered cutting edge construction at the time and ultimately has allowed the house to weather almost a century of Florida hurricanes.

Let the neighbors do their own thing while you do you

Around the same time construction of Bonnet House began, other wealthy Northerners had begun building winter mansions near Palm Beach. These homes were often lavish palaces designed for entertaining (and impressing) guests.

Though they could have afforded a mansion, Bartlett and his wife Helen Birch Bartlett opted instead for a comfortable home away from home, designed to suit the family’s winter needs rather than as a showplace for visitors.

Resolve to leave the world a little better with all your efforts

Bartlett, having been born into a wealthy manufacturing family, could have chosen to settle into the family business, but instead studied art in Munich. He lived a life devoted to beauty.

After enjoying winters at Bonnet House with his daughter and son-in-law, Birch eventually built his own house nearby in 1940 and donated it along with 180 acres to the state a year later to be used as a public park. Together the two estates form the only substantial coastal green space between Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach County.

Retain a bit of whimsy

Helen Birch Bartlett died at a young age of cancer, but Bartlett and his subsequent wife Evelyn Fortune Lilly, continued to winter at Bonnet House (which was named for a lilly), decorating it with art, either painted by the couple themselves or purchased during their world travels.

The walls of the house are lined with still-life paintings, landscapes, and portraits. Together they painted floors, doorways, and ceilings with palm trees, tropical fish, faux marbling, and intricate patterns. My favorite art in the courtyard is a collection of full-size carousel animals, including lions, tigers, an ostrich, and a pair of giraffes. They stand as a testament to the child-like joy this family had for living.

My takeaway from the visit: You don’t have to be a land tycoon or a recognized artist to build an empire or leave behind a legacy. All you really need is the ability to see where you want to go and be prepared to do whatever it takes to joyously hack a path to the beach. You get to enjoy the results, as do those who walk the trail you leave.

You might also enjoy these News Break stories:

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Waco, TX

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