The Domes of Cape Romano, Florida
Five miles south of Marco Island near Naples, Florida, six igloo-shaped buildings appear to slowly march into the sea. The deteriorating domes of Cape Romano have been rumored to be the work of extra-terrestrials, a community home of a secret cult, or a clandestine research facility protected by guards with machine guns.
In truth it was a cutting edge home, designed and built by an enigmatic visionary with an eye for the eco-friendly and a goal of minimizing his carbon footprint.
Abandoned in the early 1990s, Cape Romano’s Dome Home has endured several hurricanes and tropical storms – but it has been unable to win the war against erosion.
cover photo courtesy Mila Bridger Photography
It was the 1960s when Bob Lee (pictured at right) began inventing things for his homes. Bob had made his fortunes early in oil production and retired at age 44. He maintained a keen interest in renewable energy, experimenting with ways to lower his carbon footprint before building what would become his magnum opus.
Bob once installed a water pipe system under his floors and routed them through his fireplace, using the heat from the fireplace to keep his floors warm as well. Aware of the sun’s potential for energy, he strategically placed skylights in rooms to maximize heat and light.
In the mid-1970s Mr. Lee built a prototype of his self-sustaining dome home. Family property in Gatlinburg, Tennessee would be host to the experiment. Over several years Bob honed his craft and learned from his mistakes.
When Lee felt confident he was ready to build the family’s dream vacation home, he began to search for the ideal secluded location. Between 1978 and 1979 Lee purchased lots from four different owners on Cape Romano, at the southern end of Caxambas Island on the west coast of Florida.
Sand from Cape Romano beaches was sent to a lab in Illinois to confirm proper aggregate for use in concrete before construction began in 1980. Mr. Lee acquired a barge to haul his building equipment to the island. Among the equipment: Concrete mixers and giant metal forms used to shape the domes.
One spherical form was larger than the other, acting as a sandwich between which Lee would then pour the concrete. The spheres then fit together like a giant basketball; when the mix would harden and the forms were removed, the dome structure was the result.
After two years of construction, the Lee family was able to move into the home by 1982.
Despite its odd construction and shape, the dome home was a fully-functioning yet self-sustaining home. The walls were foam-filled for insulation and pilings underneath the domes allowed for the free-flow of water during storms.
Why domes? Lee’s family offer several reasons for this choice: A round roof smoothed the home’s profile and minimized wind interference. The spherical shape also helps capture rainwater via a gutter system, which Lee designed to surround the base of each dome (see picture below).
The gutters collected the precipitation into a 23,000 gallon cistern stored underneath the home. A filter system purified the water for use in bathing and cleaning while two hot water heaters regulated water temperature.
Bob’s daughter Janet Maples recalled “My dad thought the corners of rooms were wasted space as were the corners of the ceiling. He thought the dome ceiling gave the feeling of openness. He was right. The rooms felt very large and open.”
(click thumbnails to enlarge)
(note the distance to the water in the third picture)
The dome home was not lacking in features and boasted air conditioning, ceiling fans, a hot tub, satellite television, and skylights. Six 400 square foot domes combined to create 2,400 square feet of open living space..
The three bedrooms and three bathrooms were powered by solar energy. Backup generators picked up the slack on the cloudiest days of the year.
Lighted walkways provided access to the water, one to the lagoon behind the home and the other to the ocean in front.
original photos courtesy Krisitian Maples
Life Without Lee
For seven years Bob and his family enjoyed their time in the dome home at Cape Romano, but by 1989 the family sold the residence to George Wendell.
Wendell had plans to acquire adjacent properties on the island for a business venture, but first he wanted to make improvements to the dome home property.
For the next two years a caretaker by the name of Brian Slager was hired to make improvements on the property. Slager lived in the dome home while he built a new dock, upgraded the electrical system, and groomed the grounds with heavy machinery.
“[It was] the best time of my life. It was wonderful.”
– Brian Slager
photos courtesy Brian Slager
By 1991 Wendell was no longer satisfying his financial obligations to the property. With the deed still in the name of the Lees, the home returned to Bob and his family after foreclosure.
Lee and his wife decided to remodel the home and occupied it once again, this time for two years until Hurricane Andrew in the summer of 1992. The structure had survived the storm, but the windows and walkways had been lost to the category five hurricane (see below).
After the storm, the family abandoned the residence in its state of disrepair – unfortunately one from which they could not remedy. The next twelve years for the dome home were spent abandoned, vacant and deteriorating from exposure to the elements.
Teens used the domes as a hangout, fishermen used them to cast lines, and graffiti artists treated them like a blank canvas.
Somehow the dome home earned a reputation as a scary place over the years. Janet Maples recalls one conversation overheard at a drugstore on Marco Island:
“Some people in the row behind me were saying, ‘Have you been by those dome houses?’ And the other one said, ‘Yeah, but I hear they guard that with machine guns!’”
Hope came in the form of John Tosto, a Naples resident whose family trust purchased the dome home in 2005 for $300,000. The new owner had intentions to renovate the home and return it to full functionality.
“It’s just something I wanted from the first time I saw it. That was it.”
– John Tosto
Dome home builder Bob Lee had previously advised the next owner would want to install a seawall to protect the home; however by the time Tosto acquired the property it was understood to be futile to try and preserve the location.
Instead Tosto planned to relocate the domes farther away from the coastline and bring them into compliance with county building codes. According to the permit application, the domes would be moved by crane and set atop new concrete and steel pilings more than 50 feet tall and at least 25 feet away from wetlands.
Materials would be delivered by barge, and timed as to not interfere with sea turtle and shorebird nesting seasons. Moving the domes was estimated to take 60 to 80 days while building the dock would take less than a month.
Mother Nature, Legislature
If Tosto was going to save Bob Lee’s masterpiece, he would not have the cooperation of the weather. Shortly after he purchased the dome home, Hurricane Wilma pummeled Cape Romano and altered the fragile islet’s coastline with 150-mph winds.
Undeterred, Tosto boarded up the home and pressed forward with his project. Acquiring permits proved to be a stumbling block John could not overcome; between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Collier County Code Building and Enforcement Departments, the regulatory oversight was suffocating.
For the next two years progress was hindered by a failure to obtain permits in time between nesting seasons. By 2007 the Collier County Code Enforcement Board issued an order the structure was unsafe and must be demolished or removed within two years.
Tosto was able to produce an engineer’s certification which indicated the home was repairable. Ultimately some board members cited his failure to make progress in years prior as swaying their decision.
In November of 2009 the Code Enforcement Board of Collier County levied fines of $187,000 for Tosto’s failure to comply. Tosto alleged sea turtle nesting season offered him short windows for heavy site work, and permit delays gave him little opportunities to take advantage of those windows.
He acknowledges “we’re right in the middle of the Rookery Bay Reserve. We understand their concerns.”
Code Enforcement Director Dianne Flagg told John Tosto the fines could be retroactively waived with compliance of the original 2007 order. Undeterred, Tosto alternatively predicted the fines would go away when he is allowed permits to continue construction.
In 2009 the Tosto family trust had $500k invested; at the time it was estimated another $900k would be required to finish the renovation. In the interim, the Tosto family has offered space to Rookery Bay to store sea turtle research and monitoring supplies on the property.
“I’m not trying to be a rebel here, I’m willing to share.” He said. “A lot of people use that property down there. I’m only going to make it better.”
above photos circa 2007 & courtesy Flickr user gunboats
As far as threats, the vandal’s spray paint pales in comparison to the natural removal of soil. Known as erosion, it’s an exogenic process in which rock or soil is moved from one location to another. Water erosion helped create the Grand Canyon, and wind erosion is responsible for Utah’s famous Arches National Park.
[read: S-I feature “The Last House on Holland Island,” a story of a Chesapeake Bay home which succumbed to erosion. ]
Due to its location, the dome home has fallen victim to several types of erosion, including sea erosion and soil erosion. After every hurricane the landscape – and shape of the island – is changed. Strong currents and what’s called a longshore drift perpetually batter the fragile shoreline.
The danger increased every year.
Ocean waves first began their daily dance with the pillars of the dome home in 2004. The following year Hurricane Wilma severely damaged the shoreline. By 2009 the building was standing in water.
By 2011 the home’s foundation was completely submerged. The following year the home was 25 yards offshore, and by 2013 it was sitting in six feet of water.
“I remember when it was actually an exhausting walk to the beach.”
– Janet Maples
One by one, area coastline homes on the island were abandoned (including the pyramid house – also built by Bob Lee) as they were felled by natural disasters such as Hurricanes Andrew (1992), Wilma (2005), and Tropical Storm Fay (2008).
Today the shifting sands have left the domes in water and looking like giant Scrubbing Bubbles cleaning the ocean shore.
Bob Lee’s creation is likely no longer salvageable; its submerged location and prolonged exposure to saltwater add economically insurmountable salvage costs to the relocation costs and likely push total estimates beyond those of new construction.
(click thumbnails to enlarge)
above photos courtesy Melissa Blazier
On a positive note, Bob Lee’s dome home has fostered an ecosystem offshore as an artificial reef. Florida Weekly Correspondent Cynthia Mott went on a snorkel trip to the Dome Home and she spoke of its beauty:
I’ve snorkeled Grand Cayman, Mexico and Fiji, yet have never witnessed a more diverse, crowded concentration of undersea life than what has taken up residence under the remnants of those domes. It was as if all the fish and rays living along that part of the Collier County coast decided to hangout in one location. To make the sight even more remarkable, swirling like iridescent tornado clouds around the gathering were millions of shimmering, silver baitfish.
Did You Know?
• Cape Romano was first settled by Native Americans around 5,000 BC. The Calusa Tribe was the predominant early power in the area.
• According to Everglades matriarch Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Cape Romano was named for British surveyor Bernard Roman who sailed by it in 1775. In The Everglades: River of Grass, Miss Douglas wrote:
“(the cape) juts boldly south, at the head of the Ten Thousand Islands … where Indian canoes and small Spanish vessels had always moved between Cuba and the beaches north of Cape Romano.”
• 2005’s Hurricane Wilma was the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, and a direct hit on Cape Romano. It caused $29.1 billion in damage and was part of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season which included the disastrous Hurricane Katrina.
• The dome home was valued at $1.5M in 1980, but by 2007 had a value of just $300k.
• Getting to Cape Romano: It is located south of Marco Island and only accessible via boat or kayak. The closest boat ramps are Caxambas Pass and Goodland Boating Park, roughly six miles away. Once in the water, be sure to use a nautical chart and GPS as it is easy to get lost in the tangle of mangrove islands in the area. VHF radios are recommended; cell phone service is not reliable in the area. Be wary of tides which can fluctuate several feet.
photos courtesy Marci Seamples
visit the Cape Romano Community Facebook Page
Special thanks to Janet Maples, Mike Morgan, Kristian Maples, Brian Slager, Melissa Blazier, Marci Seamples, and Natalie Strom of the Coastal Breeze News