The bitter battle for Bonnet House: A greedy grab for profit, power, and property

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This beloved landmark and major tourist attraction is ground zero in a nasty feud for control of its property and purse strings.

Strolling the lush and peaceful grounds of Fort Lauderdale’s historic Bonnet House, you would never suspect that this beloved landmark and major tourist attraction is ground zero in a nasty feud for control of its property and purse strings.

The dispute is about to break open statewide because it involves a statewide organization that has taken on the role of a pirate and plunderer.

“Bonnet House’s future is in jeopardy,” says Patrick Shavloske, Bonnet House’s concerned CEO. “It is being threatened by the very organization entrusted to protect its legacy.”

The little-known Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, based in Tallahassee, is about to get a much higher and negative profile for its very questionable actions that directly threaten Bonnet House’s existence. While the Trust is supposed to protect Florida’s extraordinary heritage and history, it comes off as the really bad guy for betraying its mission in what can only be viewed as a naked power and money grab.

In 1983, Bonnet House’s owner, Evelyn Bartlett, entrusted her estate to the fledgling nonprofit to ensure the property’s beauty and history would be preserved for generations to come.

But the Florida Trust has broken trust with Bonnet House and the people of Florida. By all accounts, it is exploiting the estate in a greedy play for money, power, and 35 acres of prime South Florida beachfront property.

When Bartlett gifted her home to the Florida Trust, her intention was that it be managed by a local board and that revenue from events, visitors and donations would be used to maintain the nearly 100-year-old property in perpetuity.

But four years into the agreement, and against Bartlett’s wishes, the Florida Trust began demanding a significant portion of the estate’s annual revenue to underwrite its own growing administrative costs and support other operations across Florida.

Since 1995, the Florida Trust has taken a whopping $1.4 million from Bonnet House and has become dependent on the cash flow to bankroll 64 percent of its annual budget.

Rather than engage in its own fundraising and creative ways to develop new revenue streams for itself, the Trust is treating Bonnet House like its personal piggy bank — and now it wants more.

In February, the Florida Trust put Bonnet House, Inc. on notice that it intended to oust the local board, take over 100 percent of the property’s management, and with it 100 percent of the estate’s revenue.

Understandably, Bonnet House has respectfully but vigorously resisted — to protect its historic treasure.

“Revenue earned by Bonnet House must stay with Bonnet House to maintain and restore the property and protect its future,” Shavloske emphasized. “Our local board knows this estate inside and out, and what’s best for it. Long-distance management from Tallahassee would spell disaster.”

This summer, the Florida Trust finally agreed to come to the table with Bonnet House Inc. and mediate a solution. But now the Trust has inexplicably broken off those talks and sent a letter last week notifying Bonnet House they had unilaterally declared a mediation impasse.

Shockingly, Florida Trust gave Bonnet House 48 hours to tell them when they planned to turn over keys to the property, when the local management team planned to depart, and when Florida Trust could expect all of Bonnet House’s revenue and control of its bank accounts.

This is like the tragic plotline in a B-movie except for the harsh reality that Bonnet House’s future is on the line. The Trust is making outrageous demands powered by heinous motives: money, power, and control.

Valiantly fighting for its survival means Bonnet House almost surely will be heading to court. Meanwhile, the Trust should feel shamed in the court of public opinion for its shallow and selfish actions.

If its leadership and diverse board don’t find their way to a higher road, perhaps there’s another path for the Trust to save a stained reputation that is at risk of being forever tainted: To the extent that Secretary of State Laurel Lee and Gov. Ron DeSantis don’t want an entity in their sphere of influence to go so rogue and wrong, an executive step of urgent diplomacy might stop this before it gets any worse.

Peter Schorsch

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including Florida Politics and Orlando Rising and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Schorsch is also publisher of INFLUENCE Magazine. For several years, Peter's blog was ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.


20 comments

  • Eddie Keith

    October 1, 2019 at 11:28 pm

    Peter…

    Just wonderful.
    Looking forward to the outcome.
    Likely, this intervention should be an extension
    of enterprize…vitally needed is pivotal intervention.
    a signature “intervention”.

    Peter do you have interest with more readers favor?

  • Daniel Brewer

    October 2, 2019 at 10:27 am

    What can residents of Ft. Lauderdale do to help Bonnet House and its staff and board?

    • Abby Laughlin

      October 2, 2019 at 10:49 am

      The easiest and quickest thing you can do is join as a member. In addition, volunteers are always needed to help care for their vast botanical gardens. You would be surprised how many Fort Lauderdale residents have never been to Bonnet House, it is truly a gem.

  • Meryl Vogrin

    October 2, 2019 at 12:37 pm

    One of the highlights of my trip to Ft. Lauderdale to visit my son and daughter-in-law. What a gorgeous property with so many beautiful pieces and artwork. So peaceful and serene, an oasis in a frenzied, commercial area of Florida. Would be a tremendous loss if it falls into the wrong hands!

  • George M. Rusovick

    October 2, 2019 at 2:19 pm

    The Bonnet House’s constant needs are maintenance, paying the staff, basic human comforts, a food concession, and safety for its visitors. There are not adequate restroom facilities for the multitude of people that visit.
    Also, most importantly, the Bonnet House is a Florida cultural icon providing an educational experience for children/adults as well as being a place to host civic activities.
    I feel the Bonnet House’s admission fee is not exorbitant.. Unfortunately, the revenue it provides does not seem to be applied for the necessary amenities.

  • Barb Luzzo

    October 2, 2019 at 7:32 pm

    I have always loved visiting the Bonnet House. The and the stories of living in Ft Lauderdale that many yrs ago👍🏻😍

  • Ms. Clarke

    October 2, 2019 at 9:01 pm

    You should get your facts straight before writing something like this. I can imagine who fed you this one-sided story. You failed to mention anything about several of the pro-development members of the entity Bonnet House, Inc. board who wish to bulldoze acres of ancient Florida habitat for condos. Florida Trust owns the property, period!!!!! Looks like certain members of the unsteady Bonnet House board made up of developers and an unethical incoming chair who was recently fired from her job at a prominent law firm is about to get ousted and a new board of preservationists and stewards are about to take over. Way overdue! Peter, if you want flashy headlines like this you should do some digging, im positive you will find dirt.

    Sent from my iPhone

    • D. McFady

      October 4, 2019 at 6:03 pm

      Ms. Clarke: You make very serious unsubstantiated accusations here. Do you have any backup for your claims that there are pro-development board members “who wish to bulldoze acres of habitat for condos”? Do you mean that there are board members that are also developers that are developing projects elsewhere (other than at the Bonner House property)? I noticed that you do not specify (just imply) that it is the Bonner House property that they wish to bulldoze. Who is the incoming chair that you slander? Do you mean Elizabeth Drummond Brody? Did she get fired from her law firm Brody & Brody? What is your interest in this matter? I have tried to fact check as much as I can in Mr. Schorsch’s article and find public records that back up everything he says in his article but nothing that would support your claims. Here are actual facts that you may dispute, if you can,..1) “Florida Trust takes about $150,000 per year from Bonner House, which comprises about 64% of its budget. It takes 20% of all admissions, 20% net from weddings and private events, 20% net from certain gift shop sales, and $25 of every Bonnet House membership. Since 1995, Florida Trust has taken more than $1.4 million from Bonnet House.” 2) “When the Florida Trust began diverting revenue from Bonnet House, Mrs. Bartlett wrote letters to the organization, expressing anger that her wishes were not being honored and that she did not give Bonnet House to support the Florida Trust.” 3)”In the 36 years that Florida Trust has owned Bonnet House, it has never provided financial support to help preserve, maintain, or restore the estate. After Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma, and Irma struck South Florida, the Florida Trust provided no financial assistance to repair storm damage.” I do not know why you have an interest in trolling this article but I look forward to seeing you reply and back up your accusation, as I’m sure many other people would. If you can provide support for your claims there are many people that would join you in a fight to preserve this public treasure.

  • Jim Dunn

    October 3, 2019 at 8:57 am

    Thank you for telling it like it is. In the 4 years I’ve been volunteering at the Bonnet House, I’ve seen the staff, the volunteers and others who participate in the many events there steadfastly put their hearts and minds into telling the Bonnet House story and preserving this unique piece of Florida history. Not just their hearts and minds, but also their money. A very high percentage of staff and volunteers donate to further the Bonnet House’s ability to continue its mission of education and preservation. When I or the other guides lead a tour of the house or grounds – whether its for a group of local senior citizens, 3rd or 4th grade school children, visitors from abroad or vacationers from the heartland – their smiles and deep appreciation for the experience is all the evidence we need to know that with years of experience Bonnet House, Inc. is getting it right. The Florida Trust should respect this success and direct their focus toward figuring out how to make it on their own.

  • Tom

    October 3, 2019 at 12:54 pm

    This is so wrong!

  • Citizen

    October 3, 2019 at 5:17 pm

    Greed,corruption embezzlement. Where is the law? Where is our elected governor.? Press charges against the persons taking the money frm the Bonnet House!m

  • Bill Lodato

    October 3, 2019 at 8:57 pm

    Having attended a few events @ Bonnet House, I can attest to it’s stature as local treasure. Of this, there is no disagreement in these comments.

    Mrs Clarke has expressed concerns that locals are interested in commercial development. That would be bad.

    Locals are saying the Trust takes from the top and provides no benefit.

    I’d bet there is some truth to both.

    Let’s not loose this treasure !!!!!

  • Central Beach Alliance

    October 4, 2019 at 1:49 pm

    Your article is very one-sided. Everybody knows that the current management of Bonnet House, Inc. cannot keep the facility going and wants to sell off parts of the property to their developer buddies. They gave it a shot and it’s not working, so step aside and let the owner of the property (The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation) do what they do best, preserve historic properties. I bet the FT is creating a local Broward board of directors who will fiscally oversee the success of Bonnet House. I would rather see the Bonnet House in the hands of the Florida Trust who is in the business of preserving property rather than a bunch of country club snobs that are currently running it into the ground.

    • One Side. Mrs Bartlett’s Side.

      October 6, 2019 at 2:00 pm

      1. This isn’t Central Beach Alliance. That board wouldn’t risk their status by posting this, they are savvy enough to stay away from this fight.

      2. This is a power grab by backdoor developers who have been taking runs at the Bonnet House for years and can’t get what they want. Local board has blocked them time and again so now they are trying through Tallahassee Trust which has provides ZERO funding to Bonnet House and is actually sucking money out of it knowing Mrs Bartlett is rolling over in her grave.

      3. Why is the Tallahassee Trust actively trying to undermine Mayor Dean Trantalis’ efforts to support the local board? He is well versed on the Bonnet House as the former district commissioner. To quote Pretty Woman big mistake. Big. Huge.

      4. District Commissioner and historic activist Steven Glassman is a board member of the Bonnet House. Does the Tallahassee Trust think he would be on a board that is doing something wrong? Of course he wouldn’t.

      4. Mrs Barlett was clear by her own words. The Florida Trust was expected to leave the Bonnet House’s funding earmarked for the Bonnet House. Instead, they have never put one penny into the historic property. Not one red cent.

      5. The Bonnet House could have made the needed roof repairs three times over if the money the Tallahassee Trust had taken from it had been allowed to be invested in the Bonnet House.

      6. There is ONE side here, the Bonnet House side. There are NOT two stories, there is one: the Tallahassee Trust has been bleeding the Bonnet House for years. It’s time they are held to account.

    • Bill Brown

      October 6, 2019 at 4:55 pm

      The comment posted under the name Central Beach Alliance was not submitted on behalf of the Board of Directors or any authorized member.

      In no way does this comment reflect our views, as this matter has not been brought before our BOD’s or Membership At-Large.

      If at such time we do, we will report our comments as it relates to this matter in the CBA Newsletter and posted on our website.

      William “Bill” Brown
      CBA President

  • Gretchen

    October 4, 2019 at 2:39 pm

    Wow, Peter, I have read your stuff for years. This does not even look like your style of writing. Who gave you this lead????? You should talk to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. I’m sure they have information to add here. They are preservationists, not developers. They must want to reorganize current management for a reason… I forever will look at your journalism differently. I think you owe it to your readers, the State of Florida and others to hear all three sides of the story. One side, the other side and somewhere in between. You can do better than this and owe various folks an apology.

  • Chuck Palmer

    October 4, 2019 at 3:03 pm

    Central Beach neighbors just found the local management group (Bonnet House, Inc.) Tax Returns. We also found out they set up a foundation located in Chicago and are filing two sets of returns. Very sneaky. They are tied to the Chair Bill O’learys company, Northern Trust. Did you know they have almost $5 Million. Get rid of these crooks and hand over the property to the owner, the Florida Trust. Im sending the financials to the media.

  • Jeff

    October 6, 2019 at 7:24 pm

    FL authorities appear to have a mafia mindset in many aspects of its culture. Government, medical and agriculture seems to me to be so corrupt most of the time that it’s amazing that anything truly natural in its culture, like the Bonnet House, have survived this long!

    I hope to help any way I can because this is an important issue, one that recalls my youth in Southern California when developers destroyed Laguna Canyon.

  • Florida Trust for Historic Preservation

    October 7, 2019 at 11:34 am

    In February, the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation shared with the community their announcement to restructure management at the Bonnet House to better protect and manage the historically significant and irreplaceable community asset. Their goal was then and continues to be the best-possible long-term preservation and operation of the Bonnet House. As the owner of the property, the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation has and will continue to abide by all documents governing the Bonnet House, both from the original grantor and between the parties. The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation agreed to mediation with Bonnet House, Inc., a nonprofit created to serve as managers of the property, in order to work together on the future of the Bonnet House. The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation does not believe publically airing details from the mediation process is responsible and that sowing discord among donors, members, volunteers, and the community can only ultimately hurt the Bonnet House.

  • Jeromy LaCorte Pearlman

    October 7, 2019 at 11:25 pm

    The Bonnet House is a treasure, I’m sure all it’s past owners are rolling in their graves! Over all of these poor choices ! Shame on the Florida Trust! Condos ? Like we need anymore ? Cement everywhere, concrete… flashing lights, traffic! This is our hidden gem nestled on so many acres where all kinds of endangered spices, animal call home. A place we can all go to escape city living. Thank you for the honesty, this report, we the people deserve to hear about it. I love going there, would be a true shame to see it all gone. We all need to help keep it in the proper hands! There’s got to be something that can be done?

Comments are closed.


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