Welcome to "Bonita Lost."
In this hidden Bonita bayou, a 1930's home, once owned by a nephew of the famed Ringling Brothers circus family, is nestled in amidst untouched nature.
Terry and Janet Benco recently purchased the home, which sits on a half-acre lot on Arroyal Road, for $859,000. An additional 6 acres of the Ringling forest surrounds the home, with water on three sides, including a creek, a lagoon, and the Imperial River.
The Bencos hope to protect the 6-acre parcel of tropical land around them, but it is currently being eyed for residential development.
In the two weeks the Bencos have lived in the home, they have encountered wildlife, native and non-native greenery, and possible circus oddities.
"I have seen eagles, tortoises and a sawfish," Terry Benco wrote in an e-mail to The Banner.
A drive down Arroyal Road does not do the property justice, but a quick hike up the long driveway gives the illusion of passing through a time machine to a period from Florida past. The driveway is unpaved, with a plethora of green timber canopying the walk up.
To the left side, a quiet lagoon sits almost unnoticed, where Terry Benco says alligators rest. Farther up the drive, an old boat has become part of the foliage with a tree grown right up the side of it, roots scattered up, on, around, and back down the boat into the soil.
Concrete walkways and brick courtyards give it a majestic feel, but at closer look, a circus motif may better describe the curious markings in the concrete — indistinguishable coins laid in like memorial markers; randomly etched curves resembling leaves; multiple paw prints one could imagine were the work of the rumored iguanas kept in the home; and hand prints large enough to resemble clown hands, complete with swollen thumbs.
An enormous mango tree, possibly planted when the original home was built, looks more like a goddess's legs sticking up from the ground than a simple fruit tree.
In between the driveway and the home, a few towering trees — so high up it strains the neck to view the top — buzz with thousands of bees from a hand-made light fixture hive that drips sheets of honey to the ground.
In addition to the two-story home, a matching garage and guest house named "The Bungalow" blend into the scenery, all painted green and tan.
"It was built not to distract from the nature," Benco said pointing out a spot where the roof makes a jagged turn around a massive tree.
Inside the home, a mix of the original 1930s home and a 1970s remodel adds to the uniqueness of the abode.
The Bencos aren't sure who remodeled the home after Adolph Ringling died in the late '70s, but Terry said the "shagadelic" touches made to the home have to go. The playboy-esque decorating style is most pronounced in the upstairs master bedroom where colossal marble tiles surround emperor-style sinks in the bathroom.
In the downstairs foyer, splattered-patterned glass borders the ceiling, and can fixtured lighting helps illuminate the room, against a divinely hand-carved wooden door and a grand stained-glass window featuring a parrot.
In many instances, the Bencos aren't sure what was there originally and what was added later, as the 1930s and the late '70s blend together in the eclectic home.
Since living in "Bonita Lost," which has problem areas of mold that are being remedied, the family has found at least two paintings hidden in the walls. One is a small painting of dark outdoor steps, with fiery foliage surrounding it. On the right of the painting, wedged between hedges, is a pile of bricks with an unrecognizable white signature. Another painting found was a large canvas with roughly sketched people on the left of the artwork and a sun-pattern of orange and white hues on the right.
Terry Benco wonders what else his family will find as he eagerly searches for history on the home.
"This is like the old Bonita Springs," Benco said.
Banner readers met Adolph Ringling in a 1975 article written by Bill Upham. Adolph was the nephew of John Ringling, of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey fame. Although he worked for his uncle, his claim to fame was his acrobatic appearances in vaudeville skits in the 1920s.
"A small room at the foot of the stairs to his two-story house is lined with pictures of Ringling and other well-known acrobats who appeared during the vaudeville era," Upham wrote in The Banner.
The Bencos have found that room, now used as a storage closet, as well as other hidden rooms. In the upstairs bathroom, an innocent-looking closet slides out from the wall. Benco hasn't explored the room yet, which houses the air conditioning, but foot boards lead behind the bathroom sinks, evidence that someone walked back there enough to lay down temporary flooring.
Terry and Janet plan to renovate the home back to a 1930's architecture, blended with a tropical Key West decor.
"We will be trying to restore the house back to its original beauty (as much as possible)," said Benco.
That shouldn't be too difficult to do, since Janet is an interior designer, but the planned work will take at least a few years to complete, they've estimated. Terry is a sergeant for the Lee County Sheriff's Office corrections bureau.
The half-acre lot is just a piece of the puzzle the couple says, adding that the surrounding 6 acres is the real gem.
A tour of the lush tropical forest boasts, most notably, a bamboo forest with stalks as round as large coffee canisters. It's believed that Dr. Eugene Payne, who owned a parcel next to the land, planted rare plants in the 1920s and 1930s. Efforts to preserve the Payne property as a botanical garden failed several years ago.
"There's probably not another bamboo strand like this," Benco said as his dogs, Max and Baxter, led the way farther into the thicket.
A banyan tree, which is believed to be at least 100 or 200 years old, towers over part of the forest.
"It would be a shame if they cut this down," Benco said.
The land is currently owned by Dorsett Harbor Development, which proposed 24 single-family residential home sites for the parcel, but was turned down. The company has a public hearing with the city of Bonita Springs at 9 a.m. on April 7 in a second attempt to rezone the property from agricultural to planned residential. The company now wants to build 20 homes.
The Bencos want to get behind an effort to preserve the land for a park with hiking trails, since the property goes right to the Imperial River boat launch owned by the county.
"They could marry the two (properties) together," Terry Benco said.
Benco would like anyone who has history on the home, or anyone interested in campaigning to preserve the land to contact him at 495-3108.