CAPE ROMANO, Fla. – It was the Dome Home of legend and lore on an island that is the gateway to the 10,000 Islands. "They were a bucket list item," remarked a tourist on the Facebook site "RIP Dome Home Cape Romano Marco Island." The famous domes succumbed to the sea during Hurricane Ian.
"Absolutely, people asked if they could see the Dome House," Alex Demooy of Breakwater Adventures said of his clients. "Most people are curious about the Dome House, and they want to see it. It's a famous attraction."
It was the dream of Bob Lee, an oil man with an engineering background who built the prototype for the home in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. He designed and constructed a self-sustained home that was "hurricane proof," recalls Brian Slager, who lived in the home as a caretaker for almost three years in the early 1990s.
Every surface of the home was round.
"He was a smart guy. Round shapes and round columns and round buildings do not have the resistance against wind as squared, flat ones do. So, absolutely it was designed to withstand the winds," Slager said. "What nobody calculated on was the fact that the water erosion would literally wash the sand out from underneath that place."
The home is on Cape Romano Island, just off Marco Island in Southwest Florida.
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The home that some of Demooy's tour groups compared to Luke Skywalker's domed house in "Star Wars" was built in 1982 with solar panels, generators, backup batteries, a cistern to collect fresh water and eventually a big satellite dish.
The six-domed home, remembered on the Facebook page, was futuristic and sci-fi looking. Even eccentric. It was built of rebar and cement and sprayed with gunite, similar to swimming pool construction.
"There was air conditioning, there was television, every channel you could imagine at a time before everybody else had a lot of channels," said Slager. "I jokingly referred to those as my Magnum P.I. days because I basically was taking care of a wealthy man's estate when he was never there and had the use of his cars and his boats and anything else."
The house was built on stilts on the land. Slager said it was "a pretty damn good walk" from the house to the water when he lived there, about 200 yards.
"Every time a storm comes through, there be less and less beach outside," Slager said. "Mother Nature was going to take that island eventually. All those barrier islands are just basically sand. And every big storm like this one that comes along shifts those sands and moves things around."
The dream home crept closer and closer to the water's edge. Then it was in the water.
"Twelve years ago, they (domes) were still in the water, but just barely. At a low tide, you could still walk around them," Demooy said about his first tours around the property, compared to those just before Ian. "The furthest, I think it was about 250 feet from the shore."
"They were a bucket list item that I thought I'd never get to see after Irma," said Norton, who is also a photographer. "There are photos that every photographer wants to shoot or see, like the Mormon Barn in Wyoming, El Cap, Yellowstone, the Pyramids, Eiffel Tower, etc. But this was in Florida, where I live, so it was more personal."
"When I first saw them, I got goosebumps and was overcome with emotion. They were not just four domes left in the ocean. They were the legacy of a man and his family and his dreams," Continued Norton. "So far ahead of his time."
Waves and erosion claimed the Dome Home's eclectic beach neighbors, "the stilt house" and "the pyramid house," before the turn of the century – giving some credence to the domes' ability to withstand wind, Slager said.
After a change of many hands, an owner tried to preserve the structure in the early 2000s.
"They tried to get permission to build a seawall at the very end when it was very obvious that the shoreline was eroding," said Demooy. "And they got denied, so it ended up in the water. It just became abandoned."
Collier County, Florida, fined the owner for not taking down the structure. The county took ownership in 2018 and made the waters around Cape Romano a protected marine area.
That did not stop the thousands of boaters and kayakers from visiting the pristine beaches and dome house every year, though.
A group tried to raise funds to sink the domes previously and make them an underwater marine habitat, according to Demooy. They never raised enough. But, after Ian, the result was the same.
"Bob Lee's dome home brought more than a life for his family. It provided a key landmark to the Marco Island area," Norton said. "It brought opportunities for tourism, as well as memories for the residents, a place to fish, and a home for marine life. Hopefully, Bob Lee's legacy and the dome home will remind us that all things are temporary. Time is the only constant."
The top of one dome just breaks the surface of the water at low tide. Demooy said he is certain his clients will ask to see what is left of the structure and want to hear about the legendary home for years to come.