The Fight for the Bonnet House of Fort Lauderdale Continues

The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation announced this past Thursday (November 7th)  its intent to take over the historic Bonnet House, kicking off a fight for control of the beachfront, community treasure.

The Bonnet House, Inc., the local organization that manages the 99-year-old estate,  said the house has given the trust about $150,000 each year since 1995. The trust relies on that income for 64% of its budget but provides no financial support to the Bonnet House in return, according to the board. 

The Trust received the Bonnet House as a donation from the last original owner Evelyn Fortune Barlett in 1983. Previously it belonged to the artist Frederic Clay Bartlett and his second wife, Helen Louis Birch – daughter of successful Chicago lawyer Hugh Taylor Birch (it was gifted to Helen and Frederic by Helen’s father).

The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation says mediation efforts to decide the property’s future have ended in an impasse, although Bonnet House representatives say they were shocked at that interpretation. Mediation began in August, after the trust, which owns the 35-acre estate’s buildings and property, said it wanted a more active role in its management.

The trust’s executive director Melissa Wyllie said in February that the trust was concerned the Bonnet House board wanted to develop part of the property.  

Bonnet House Inc. countered that the fight is over money: The Bonnet House wanted to stop sending part of its revenue to the Florida Trust each year, believing it violated the intent of the estate’s owner.

Toothaker, a lawyer-lobbyist, said the Bonnet House Inc. board hasn’t held a vote yet, but she said she expects it to fight in court to wrest ownership away. Historical documents about the land donation suggest the owner didn’t want Bonnet House’s money going to the Trust, she said.

Representatives of the house said they looked into opening a restaurant in 2013 as a way to bring in more money but abandoned the idea, as they would have to first get the approval of the City, the County, the State, the Trust and even the Bonnet House, Inc. itself.

In a 1987 letter, Evelyn Fortune Barlett stated, “Bonnet House should not have to support the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. That is not fair. They should raise their own money,”

The conflict with the trust has made fundraising difficult, Bonnet House board member Laura Palmer said. As a 1920s-era property listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the estate at 900 N. Birch Road has enormous expenses needed to shield it from Florida’s storms and humidity, allow 70,000 visitors a year to pass through and maintain its Old Florida feel. 

Bonnet House Inc., owns the house’s art and furniture and operates the property as a tourist attraction and special-event venue. There are 10 full-time and 19 part-time employees, as well as 300 volunteers, the house’s chief executive officer Patrick Shavloske said.

A letter dated September 26th from a preservation trust lawyer gives a deadline for the house to hand over its operating funds, bank accounts, information about vendors and employees, as well as inventory and title to items at the estate, which stretches from the Intracoastal Waterway to the ocean south of Sunrise Boulevard.

The Trust said that Bonnet House Inc. “has no ownership claim to the Bonnet House property.”

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