About the following photo essay; ALL vintage photos were used from the blog of Kristian Maples, the grandson of Bob Lee who is the original owner. You can find his blog here: Better Energy, Better Life. All others were taken by me.
Waking up at 2:30 in the morning to drive four and a half hours in order to pick up a boat to take to a deserted island in the Gulf Of Mexico, isn’t something I do a lot of these days. But this was special, this was one of those times where, the night before, you know you need to get some sleep because tomorrows a big exciting day, but you can’t sleep because you’re so excited for your big day tomorrow.
I’ve been eyeing this explore for quite some time now, the Cape Romano Dome Home, as it’s become known, is a cluster of dome shaped structures making up a once 3 bedroom 3 bathroom 2,400 square foot home on the southern tip of Cape Romano Island, a barrier island in the Gulf Of Mexico. Ideas for the project started in 1978 when a retired independent oil producer named Bob Lee started buying plots of land on the island. A few years later in 1980 Bob began building the home and by 1982 it was complete. It was at the time planned to be a vacation home for his family, sharing the island with only two other houses, one pyramid shaped also built by Bob, where a couple of scientists supposedly lived, but it’s long been washed away by hurricanes. Here is a photo of what the Dome Home used to look like, taken back in its hey day:
And here is what it looks like now, taken by me from almost the same angle in November 2013:
Mr. Lee was a real do it yourself kind of guy, he actually used the sand from the island to mix the concrete which he poured into two metal, half circular dome shaped forms placed on top of one another to create the dome roof which he would use on his home. It was solar-powered, self-sustained and, thanks to the concrete dome shape they were storm resistant because there were no flat edges for the wind to catch on, which I assume was part of Bob’s plan with the island being in an area known to be hit by hurricanes. There were troughs built around the domes to capture rain water. The water then ran through a filter and into a completely enclosed 55,000 gallon tank under one of the domes which was used for things like showering, washing cloths and dishes, etc. It had two refrigerators, ceiling fans, air conditioning, satellite TV and even a hot tub. When it was cloudy, they had generators to get them through until the sun came back out to power the solar-panels. Everything was covered, except time and mother nature.
For some reason, only two years after building it, Bob sold it in 1984. Years later the new owner encountered financial issues and in 1987 he sold it back to Bob and his family. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew passed through and did a little bit of damage to the home, mainly to the windows, since they were flat and not rounded like the rest of the home they caused the wind to catch and push them in, letting in water. Also bringing up the shoreline.
Soon after Bob and his wife fixed it up and kept it for a while, before passing it on to their daughter and grandson, who made it their permanent home in the early 90′s. Over time, and with each passing storm, the coastline began to disappear more and more, and so did the family. At one time I hear it was actually a pretty decent walk from the house to the beach, now they are about halfway underwater in the surf.
Here is an overhead view of what it looks like now. The red is about where the shoreline used to be.
One of the rumors about this place was that it was built by aliens, but really the only thing extraterrestrial out there was the map I brought with me. Combined with the GPS on the boat we (my fiance and I) still managed to get lost. This area is appropriately name “Ten Thousand Islands”. I believe that to be close to accurate, and there were many more that didn’t show up on the map, tiny little Mangrove covered islands everywhere. Turn right at the careless Manatee floating near the launch, then go left past the flock of Pelican’s overhead. Make another right when you see the Osprey lifeguard who sits watch over the manatees, yea those are easy enough directions. No problem. Trust me, at eye level it’s harder than it looks on the map.
But after about three hours of frustration from hitting shallow water and running ground countless times, having to pull the engine up so it didn't suck up sand and stop working on me, I found it. Out there all alone with no one in sight, it was very surreal being in the presence of a place like this that I have seen many pictures of online but never thought I’d get a chance to go personally. I love the sound and smell of the ocean, and that combined with the sight of a broken down structure is just awesome.
At almost full tide and with a strong current it was very difficult to get more than two or three shots without having to run back to the wheel and maneuver into a new position. Find a good angle, make sure there was nothing to snag the motor in the water, set the engine to idle, move to one side and take a few shots, run to the console to re-position for another set, repeat.
For about an hour I did this, the whole time worried I was gonna hit part of the home or one of the many obstacles just below the surface. I had originally planned on getting on the beach and snapping a few shots from there of the home looking out on to the sea, but with the water moving like it was and the fact that there was an oyster bed all along the beach it just seemed like a bad idea to run the boat onto it.
Heading back was rough, no way around that. The waves in Gullivan Bay were slamming against the little center console boat pretty hard, it only took two or three to completely soak me, it was very windy, and we managed to get lost… Again. Using the map, the GPS and calm nerves, my fiance was able to figure out (I say make a good guess) where we needed to go, which to this day I am still shocked about, we’re talking about a woman who regularly gets confused in large parking lots. Was it a right or left at the number 3 channel marker covered in bird poop?
The home currently belongs to a resident of Naples Florida. He purchased it in 2005 from the Lee family and was planning on making it livable again but the problem was that, soon after the purchase, hurricane Wilma hit and did a good bit of damage, bringing the coastline to the doorstep. A few years passed before environmental officials and code enforcement notified him that the home would have to be removed from the island, nothing happened with that and stacks of fines were issued. But from what I’ve seen mother nature is stepping in, as she always does, to finish what she started. I give em another year before they’re underwater completely. If it’s something you want to see before it’s gone, you should go now.