Over the years, the so-called dome home has made a slow, watery descent into the Gulf of Mexico—erosion and powerful hurricanes to blame for its demise. With Hurricane Irma making landfall near the dome home this past September, two of the domes have collapsed, sealing the fate of this beloved architectural gem.
Growing up nearby in Naples, I remember being captivated by this remarkable cluster of buildings. Filled with wonder as a child, and intrigued to this day, I wanted to know the story behind this delightfully different abode. What was the inspiration behind its igloo-like design? How did it fall into disrepair? And the more I read about this house during my digging, I wondered—how did a house that was so cutting edge end up doomed and drowning?
The home’s original owner and builder Bob Lee was a visionary who was ahead of his time, creating this self-sustaining house in the middle of nowhere. A Navy pilot-turned-oil producer from Tennessee, Lee originally bought a vacation home on Marco Island, and then built the dome home on Caxambas Island’s southern-most point in the early 1980s. "He always was a very adventurous person," recalls Lee’s grandson Mike Morgan.
"Certainly when we lived out there, we would have a lot of tourists asking questions. It definitely caught people’s attention." —Mike Morgan
With its island setting and whimsical architecture, the dome home has an enchanting history with a "Swiss Family Robinson" feel to it. Not your typical Florida house, the dome home commanded the attention from boating passers-by and folks back on the main land. "Certainly when we lived out there, we would have a lot of tourists asking questions," says Morgan. "It definitely caught people’s attention."
Before building the home on Caxambas Island, Lee perfected his concept back home in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, constructing a 2,400-square-foot, full-scale model on his property—built on the ground as opposed to on stilts.
Made of six interconnected dome structures, the three-bedroom, three-bath house was engineered with its surroundings in mind. By building the home on stilts, Lee had gutters attached around each dome, allowing rain collect in a giant cistern and then run through a filtration system for showering and drinking.
Taking hurricane-force winds into consideration, Lee came up with the concept of dome-shaped structures. "There are no real edges for wind to catch and it will withstand high-speed winds rather than your average square house," says Morgan. "With the hurricanes that hit, we may have lost windows, but the structure was completely stable during big storms."
Lee, who had a geology background, had a geologist create a shell mixture from the island's sand that was used to create cement for the house’s six domes. During the construction phase, large steel forms were created to support the heavy four-inch-thick cement domes. A foam insulation was sprayed on the exterior, and then painted white to help the interior stay cool on intense, 90-degree days.
"He was extremely intelligent," says Morgan of his grandfather. "He understood a lot about construction and he was very inventive." For instance, Lee created a fireplace contraption that would transport logs through a hole in the wall and into the fireplace.
A progressive house for its era, the dome home also had solar panels to generate energy. Lee made sure the family abided by "ship rules," taking quick showers and using electricity conservatively to ensure that there would be enough power to fuel them throughout the day. "If we had sunny days, you could do anything," says Morgan. "If it was cloudy, he had a backup generator that we used."
The fully functioning house had all the comforts of home—a satellite TV, ship-to-shore radio, and Lee even had an old-school cell phone on hand.
For transportation, naturally Lee and his family relied on boating. A small barge was used to haul in building materials, furniture, and even landscaping when the house was under construction. "I remember being on our 20-foot boat, riding through the canals with palm trees coming out of the boat," says Morgan with a laugh.
In 1984, Lee sold the house, and then repossessed the home in 1987 when it was foreclosed upon. Morgan and his parents used the house as a primary residence for a few years up until Hurricane Andrew hit in August 1992. The category-five hurricane shattered windows and flooded the interior.
Naturally, the shifting tides caused the property to change in shape throughout the day and over the years. And after decades of enduring powerful hurricanes, the tide pattern shifted so dramatically that the waterway that ran behind the island started eating away at the land.
"The only thing the house couldn’t withstand was beach erosion," says Morgan. The dome home was built just a stone’s throw from water’s edge. "To build a sea wall out there, the red tape and the permits would have saved it, but it would’ve been a whole lot to get that done—and a whole lot of money."
As Lee aged, the house became too much of a responsibility, and it was sold again in 2005 to Naples resident John Tosto. The new owner had plans to move the house to another property, but that didn’t pan out. A few weeks after purchasing the house, Hurricane Wilma ravaged Southwest Florida, further eroding the island’s beach.
In 2007, Collier County deemed the property uninhabitable and ordered Tosto to remove the dome home if it wasn’t brought up to code. The county even started fining Tosto $250 a day until its removal, according to The Naples Daily News.
In 2016, a Naples-based nonprofit called Oceans for Youth that educates children about marine life attempted to raise $2.2 million to move and sink the dome home off the coast to create an artificial reef, but failed to raise enough money.
Over the years, no course of action has been taken to move the home. Boaters cruise by. Divers explore its reef. Tides come and go. The dome home continues to sink. In due time, the dome home—now 200 feet offshore—will be laid to rest, its burial at sea. Until then, its foundation provides a home for marine life; and its weathered and graffitied domes, a perch for birds to sun themselves.
Get the Dwell Newsletter
Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.