The two visitors who blew into Flamingo at the southernmost point in Everglades National Park seven years ago totally wrecked the place.
Ever since hurricanes Katrina and Wilma wiped out the 103-room motel and the few rental cabins, the only way nature lovers could spend a night in the park was to pitch a tent or sleep in a camper.
But starting now, there is finally one room for rent -- a wood and fabric structure called an eco-tent. With a cantilevered roof and sitting on a 2-foot-high platform, it looks like an angular winged bird about to lift off into the sawgrass.
Built by University of Miami architecture students, it includes beds, a table and four chairs, and has won rave reviews from designers and park officials.
"What I like about the design is that it is very unique and innovative. When I first saw it, I fell in love with it," said park superintendent Dan Kimball.
Yet the $17,000 prototype may be the only one ever constructed. The National Park Service has no money to build the 40 units called for in a master plan. And the current concessionaire is under no obligation to provide overnight accommodations at the remote campsite 38 miles south of the Homestead entrance.
"It's a dilemma," said park planner Fred Herling.
A decision on what could replace the 1950s-era motel that once hosted park visitors could be years away. A new contract will require the next Flamingo concessionaire to provide some overnight accomodations, according to park officials. But it would not take effect until January 2014, and any construction would begin after that.
"We're not looking to build Ritz-Carlton down there," said Kimball. "But people are very interested in accomodations there, and I hear about it all the time, from visitors and even my own family. My dad, at 93, remembers staying down there with my mother."
On Thursday, the first day reservations were accepted, the eco-tent was booked for 20 nights, park officials said, at a daily rate of $16. It will be occupied for the first time Friday.
The project began when park officials asked UM's school of architecture to come up with a shelter that would be sturdy, open to the Everglades environment and easily disassembled to be stored during hurricane season.
"Most tents in parks tend to be low canvas things that are claustrophic," said Rocco Ceo, the professor who worked with about a dozen students as they designed and built the prototype. "The eco-tent has a center pole that provides a 12-foot high ceiling at the center."
Ceo compared the feel of it to that of a Seminole-style chickee, "the emblematic structures of the Glades."
The interior space is 14-foot-6 square, furnished with either four single or two double beds. Side screens keep out mosquitoes, the translucent fabric top lets in light, and the cantilevered roof serves to funnel in breezes from any director, said Ceo.
There is no electricity. When solar-powered lights are installed next month, the daily rate will rise to $30.
Don Finefrock, executive director of the South Florida National Parks Trust, which funded the prototype, said the final price tag left him with a bit of "sticker shock."
"At first blush, it seems like a lot for a tent," said Finefrock. "But it is a prototype, the designer model."
If it went into production, the cost would come down to possibly $10,000 each, said Ceo.
"But unless there are companies out there willing to take a risk in a place like Flamingo, it could be the only one" ever built, said Herling.
For students, seeing a conceptual design come to life was a rare thrill, said Mike Galea, 25, who graduated in May.
"There is a great sense of completion," said Galea. "Maybe when the park people asked the university to design a tent, they might have expected something unrealistic. But this is very efficient and it looks good, too."
For information on reserving the eco-tent, call 239-695-0124 or see nps.gov/ever.
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