Growing Up Mid-Century Modern

As Cincinnati architect Benjamin Dombar approaches 90, his daughter reflects on his work.
Benjamin Dombar
Apprentices working with Frank Lloyd Wright. Benjamin Dombar is second from the left.

Photograph courtesy the Dombar family

“We grew up feeling that Frank Lloyd Wright was part of our family,” says Rockell Meese. For Meese, the daughter of architect and former Wright apprentice Benjamin Dombar, Mid-Century Modern wasn’t just about rooflines or windows. For the middle daughter of a man who contributed more than 1,000 homes to the Cincinnati landscape, it was a way of life.

“The kinds of things that my father learned from Mr. Wright were so much more than architecture,” she says. “The stress was on non-materialism and appreciating the beauty of nature and the design of everything.” You can usually tell when you’re in a Benjamin Dombar house, she notes. Like Wright, his focus was on bringing family together and on experiencing the natural surroundings. Large stone hearths invite people to sit around the fireplace and revel in each other’s company. Dramatic windows make the outside an extension of the house, an effect drawn from Wright’s concept of “organic architecture.”

With Cincinnati’s wooded enclaves and river views, few cities were better poised for this style of design. Dombar used the hilly terrain to its best advantage, Meese says, delighting in the challenging hillside properties on which no one else would attempt to build.

“He took a perfectly magnificent piece of nature and tried to put a house into it without disturbing it,” she says.

Dombar homeowners admire his sense of surprise. From the road, the homes are usually unassuming, if they’re visible at all. Inside is a different picture, with breathtaking vistas through floor-to-ceiling windows.

“The entryway is not anything that you would get excited about,” Everett Rudisell says of his Dombar home near North Bend, Ohio. “But then you walk just a little bit further, and you have this view—out of probably 25 windows—of the Ohio River and the hills of Kentucky. It’s the same with Wright’s houses. When you first walk in the door you might say, ‘Nothing here grabs me.’ But then all of a sudden you go around a bend or you move into a particular area, and wham! the house hits you.”

Dombar is now nearly 90 years old. His seven years as a member of the Taliesin Fellowship began in 1934 and marked a notable era for Frank Lloyd Wright designs. Among the 50 projects designed and built during Dombar’s apprenticeship were Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the Life Magazine house in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. And then, after serving in the Army during WWII, Dombar returned home to Cincinnati where, according to local mid-century experts, he not only brought Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired architecture but made it affordable for everyone.

As a child, however, Meese was only vaguely aware of her father’s contribution to Cincinnati architecture. She simply remembers an architect who cared for his homes like a doctor cares for his patients. Meese would tag along with her father as he made daily inspections of his houses under construction. Years later, if one of those homeowners needed help with a leaky roof or a consultation on new flooring options, Dombar was on his way.

“Once my father designed a house for someone, he became like one with the family,” Meese says.

Meese also describes a childhood infused with Taliesin’s lessons in innovation and creativity. She has a collection of handmade cards that her father has given her for various occasions over the years. In the Taliesin spirit of recycling, Dombar once built Meese an exquisite table out of an oddly shaped piece of driftwood he found near her cottage in Hawaii (Meese was a student there in the 1970s).

Of course, nowhere is Dombar’s innovation more apparent, Meese notes, than in the yellow, hexagonal-shaped house he built for his family. Nestled miraculously in the bank of the Congress Run Creek in Springfield Township, the house offers four levels of panoramic views of the creek and surrounding woods. Fashioning everything by hand, Dombar used creek bed stones as the floor in the foyer, along the backsplash in the kitchen and around the huge fireplace to allow to creek to “run” through the house. He integrated pull-out stepstools into the bottom kitchen cabinetry so his wife, Shirley, could reach the high shelves. And he installed small sections of stone flooring near the windows to serve as impervious surfaces for houseplants.

“When it came to living everyday life, there was a simplicity about what was important and a solution to every problem,” Meese reflects. “That was just part of our life, that you can do something that no one else has done.”

Editor’s Note: Benjamin Dombar died on October 3, 2006.

This article originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of Cincinnati Magazine Home & Garden

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