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Hurricane Ian destroys treasured Florida ‘dome home’ landmark

The domes as they appeared before Hurricane Ian struck. (Treasure Seekers Shell Tours)

They stood sentry in the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico: a string of white domes raised on columns that, depending on the viewer, resembled igloos or jellyfish or some sort of sci-fi creature.

Built by an amateur inventor in the eighties to be self-sustaining, solar-powered and hurricane-resistant, the unusual retreat was once valued at $1.5 million, envisioned as part of a neighborhood of getaway homes on the white-sand Cape Romano, near Marco Island.

Nature had other plans. Beginning in the early 2000s, hurricanes and erosion ate away at the land where the Cape Romano dome home sat. By this year, it was hundreds of feet off the shore — an otherworldly local landmark that drew a stream of sightseers who arrived by boat.

Now, the domes have been lost to the sea. When Hurricane Ian tore through southwest Florida last week, they were destroyed. In photos taken by local shelling companies, all that remains were a few columns poking, just barely, out of the water. The much-mythologized home succumbed to the same forces it was designed to resist, becoming a symbol of the area’s enormous loss.

“It was coming eventually,” said Brian Slager, who lived in the house from 1989 to 1991. “And a storm as bad as this one — if anything’s going to take it, this would. I’ve been around in Florida and living long enough to know that if Mother Nature wants to take something, it takes it.”

Ian dealt a devastating blow to the region when it made landfall near Fort Myers as a nearly Category 5 hurricane. The death toll stood at more than 70 on Tuesday and was expected to continue climbing. Homes along the storm’s path were flooded to their second stories, stripped of their roofs or reduced to nothing but concrete, wood and debris.

By comparison, the long-empty dome home is a lesser loss.

“The abandoned house that got blown away is a lot less of a let down than the people who actually have their houses that blew away,” Alex Demooy of Breakwater Adventures told the Naples Daily News.

Yet its destruction still struck a chord. Treasure Seekers Shell Tours posted a Facebook Reel showing what was left of the chain of domes, writing that they had loved showing it off during tours and were “SO sad” to report the destruction.

An RIP Dome Homes group sprang up on the social media network, gaining more than 500 members within days. Visitors shared a rush of photos and memories in tribute. One woman wrote that the domes had been a favorite spot of her family’s. When her husband died nearly a year ago, it was there that they decided to have a memorial toast.

“This way we could always ‘visit’ him in one of our happy places,” she added.

What became a treasured monument began as one man’s dream. Bob Lee was a Tennessee resident who retired early after a lucrative oil career, according to a 2013 Florida Weekly story. He loved southwest Florida and set out to build a vacation home on the nearly untouched beachfront of Cape Romano, accessible only by water.

Lee was imaginative and inventive, always tinkering and dreaming up new innovations. He was also, as daughter Janet Maples put it to the Coastal Breeze, “way before his time.” The house, for which he purchased land from four different owners, was made of cement mixed from the island’s sand and filled with foam for climate control.

It made up of domes, so rainwater would run down the sides and into a cistern for use in showers and dishwashing, grandson Mike Morgan said. That wasn’t the only benefit.

“The main structure’s design is very high wind resistant because there’s no sharp edges or flat surfaces for the wind to catch on,” Morgan told the Coastal Breeze. “That was another thought process that my grandfather had when he built them.”

When Slager first spotted it, he thought, “Oh, my God, what a fabulous place that is.” He wondered who owned it: someone rich and famous? He wound up living on the property years later, hired to keep watch over it by a man who bought it from Lee.

It was a nature lover’s paradise, Slager said, with only two homes as neighbors. They were unusual, too — one shaped like a pyramid and another up on stilts. He recalled “a lot of adventure” from those days: once giving a tour to a boatload of women, another time seeing his dog chase after a Florida panther and return the next day, “his tail wagging like nothing happened.”

On Marco Island, he said, local lore had it that the odd-looking home was used by government agents or guarded with machine guns: “The stories were all over the island.”

The Lee family eventually retook ownership of the property and lived in it once more, until Hurricane Andrew knocked out the windows and damaged the interior in 1992. In 2005, a man named John Tosto purchased the place for $300,000 with plans of renovating and moving the house further from the shore, according to the Naples Daily News. Then Hurricane Wilma hit.

That was the beginning of the end, eroding the beach significantly. Two years later, Collier County declared the property uninhabitable; hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines would follow for Tosto.

Maples told the Coastal Breeze that she could remember a time “when it was actually an exhausting walk to the beach.” But over the years, the shore receded further and further from the domes. The other two homes were long since washed out to sea. The neighborhood, if there had been one, would have vanished, too.

“Thumbing through historical photos, the shifting ground makes it appear the domes crept themselves into the sea, until today they are totally surrounded by water,” Cynthia Mott wrote in the Florida Weekly story. “Cape Romano got a makeover and the dome homes got a new yard.”

To some, it was a sign of climate change. Jayantha Obeysekera, research professor and director of the Sea Level Solutions Center at Florida International University, told E&E News in 2019 that it was “a very telling example of how climate change and sea-level rise will affect us in the future.”

There was talk at one point of manually sinking the domes as a natural reef, the Naples Daily News reported. But that didn’t happen. Many, including the executive director of the regional tourism agency, didn’t want to see it go. The home had long since begun its second life as an ocean object of wonder, photo backdrop and tour stop.

Nikki Webster, an Orlando resident who runs the travel blog Brit on the Move, stumbled across a photograph of the domes online and visited in 2019. She chronicled the voyage on her blog, calling it an “exhilarating experience.”

“It reminded me of when I saw the pyramids,” Webster said in an interview. “It’s like they appear, and you’re just like, ‘Whoa, what is that?’ ”

She exhorted people to visit, always with a warning: “I told everybody I know this is a very short-lived piece of history,” she said, “that the sea is going to claim.”