Under the domes
Jutting from the water, a hundred feet off an isolated strip of beach, a cluster of white domes rise absurdly from the Gulf of Mexico a few miles south of Marco Island. Published descriptions have called them igloos, Pac Man figures, something out of Star Wars and “retro futuristic.”
Passing around my own photos to friends, I collected the terms “giant jellyfish” and “scrubbing bubbles from the toilet cleaning commercial” (thank you, Perry and Patty).
Locals call it the Cape Romano dome home. It isn’t just a local kitschy oddity. The domes have their own Facebook page, an honor shared by another white dome surrounded by water, the Jefferson Memorial.
The giant bubbles were once connected by wooden walkways to make a home, a private vacation retreat for the Tennessee family of Bob and Margaret Lee. According to family interviews, Mr. Lee retired early from a lucrative career in oil. He then directed his energies, technical skills and vast imagination toward a miscellany of inventions, with a particular passion for sustainable living.
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.”
Juan Ponce de Leon was at Cape Romano, too, long before surveyor Roman passed by. During Ponce’s summer of 1513 sea journey, the bold jut of the cape was mapped for all time on the famous Freducci 1515 chart depicting La Florida.
Cape Romano has stood sandy sentinel to a sundry parade of people. After the Calusa Indians came Spanish conquistadors, followed by Cuban fishermen and pirates, outlaws, in-laws and Cracker fisherfolk.
In 1980, Bob Lee and family staked their claim on the sunny spit and started crafting their retro futuristic, scrubbing bubbles, igloo-shaped vacation dream home several hundred feet inland from the gulf.
Living off the grid
Mr. Lee’s business may have been oil, but his dome home was designed to live as unreliant on the grid as possible. His Cape Romano creation utilized solar for all power systems and had gutters that filled a 23,000-gallon cistern with rainwater. Cement for building construction was made using island sand, and walls were foam-filled for temperature regulation. Pilings allowed for the free-flow of water under the structure, should such ever become necessary during a storm, and round roofs meant little wind resistance.
Technologically speaking, the futuristic home was off the grid and ahead of its time, but it also suffered no lack of amenities. Even by today’s standards it was well fitted for comfort, boasting air conditioning, skylights, a hot tub, satellite dish and lighted walkways to waterfronts on both sides of the house.
But why was everything round?
Janet Maples, Mr. Lee’s daughter recalls, “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.”
Hurricane Wilma came ashore with winds of 120 mph and Cape Romano in her crosshairs. According to a 2009 U. S. Geological Survey, the storm pushed a wall of water 15 feet into the mangroves and spread three to six inches of gulf-bottom muddy sediments across 110 square miles. The mighty storm did exact her pound from the ancient isle; however, it was not the domes that caved, but the land itself. Nature has bent and broken but not yet destroyed Mr. Lee’s monuments to human ingenuity.
Time and tides have taken their toll. Cape Romano has undergone a transformation, a total reshaping. Morgan Pass, once a navigable stretch of water on the backside of the beach, filled in with sand. 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. Cape Romano got a makeover and the dome homes got a new yard.
When her father built their home, Mrs. Maples recalls, it stood so far inland it seemed like a long walk to the beach. The beach grew uppity and marched itself right on by the dome homes, of which Miss Douglas might write, “now jut boldly from the sea.”
The view from beneath
On a recent trip to Cape Romano, I put on a snorkel and mask and slipped underwater for a peek at Mr. Lee’s sodden dream. The spectacle was as surprising underwater as over. 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.
I snorkeled with a companion, a braver, more experienced diver, who would swim under the domes and herd clouds of fish in my direction. It was dizzying and splendid, and gave an all-new context to the decaying domes arching high overhead.
A murky future
The Lee family sold their Cape property years ago and the domes are currently held in a family trust of Naples resident John Tosto. Mr. Tosto purchased the property in 2005 with the intention of renovating the domes to make them habitable, but has since run into hurdles with an entire flock of governmental regulating agencies. Several years ago he was ordered to remove the domes entirely. When they did not disappear, Collier County Code Enforcement imposed stiff fines, reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“It would break Daddy’s heart to see it like it is, but what he always said before he died was that it was worth it for the time he had in it,” Mrs. Maples is quoted in a 2012 interview. The author, Natalie Strom, adds, “Those who have seen the domes for themselves certainly agree.”
Granted, it is disconcerting to see those domes tilting odd-angled from the sea. And if judged by their worthiness for human habitation, then surely they are metaphors for endings, not rebirth, for decay, not vigor.
But if Mr. Lee were alive today and could return to his beloved Cape Romano to slip beneath that clear briny water and take a masked swim around, I think his heart would swell with pride to see that his dream of sustainability thrives. The flurry and fuss of colorful, busy, swirling sea life would surely astound and thrill him. It’s a fishy riot down there, the likes and number of which Mr. Lee never enjoyed inside his beautifully strange shore home.
I hope neither the Tosto family nor any well-intentioned regulatory agency ever destroys the domes. They are providing a healthy habitat, clearly beloved by countless creatures of the sea — and a host of the feathered sort, too. Mr. Lee’s dream should be allowed to age gracefully, as it and Cape Romano itself have been doing all these years — hand-in-hand with the elements, until nature engulfs the dream. ¦
— Author’s note: In case this entices anyone to snorkel or dive this beautiful site, beware of strong currents, tangles of fishing line wrapped around pilings and giant stingrays buried in the sand.