Bringing Ben Dombar Back to Life

Beth Johnson is rehabbing the famous Cincinnati architect’s own home and studio, hoping to place it on the National Register of Historic Places and cement the reputation of a Frank Lloyd Wright disciple.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

Four steps in, I said, This is it,” Beth Johnson recalls. The house—hexagonal in shape, mustard-colored, four stories tall yet barely visible from Galbraith Road—was uninhabited and, as she stood inside the front entrance, also uninhabitable. But she fell in love on the spot, busted pipes, raccoon pee, and all.

It takes guts to imagine a future for an unorthodox property sitting vacant on a steep, thickly wooded hillside. But Johnson has advantages over the average would-be rehabber. First, she’s the city of Cincinnati’s urban conservator, so she understands what it takes to make a decrepit site livable. And second, she knew that this neglected residence on the honeysuckle-strangled banks of Congress Run Creek once was a dream home: the residence and studio of esteemed Cincinnati architect Ben Dombar.

Dombar and his brother Abrom (Abe) were trained by Frank Lloyd Wright. They brought Wrightian principles and sensibility to town, designing homes for hundreds of area families from the 1940s to the 1980s. This house was completed in 1968 on acreage Ben and his wife, Shirley, bought in the early 1950s. It was here that Dombar, at the height of his career, had a free hand to build what he wanted.

Benjamin Dombar Papers, donated by Rockell Meese, daughter of Ben Dombar

Blueprints courtesy the Robert A. Deshon & Karl J. Schlachter Library for Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning

Throughout Johnson’s multi-year restoration, she has worked to preserve Dombar’s artistry and retain his vision. Now she’s hoping that the Ben Dombar House and Studio will be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. If she’s successful, it will be the first property designed by Dombar to be recognized in this way.

Historic designation may not have been Johnson’s immediate thought when she took those first steps. But what motivated her is what drives so many people who fall in love with a building that needs rescuing: She was confident it could be saved, and she was convinced it should be.

The Dombar house and studio isn’t Beth Johnson’s first rehab rodeo. Fifteen years ago, when she served as preservation officer for the city of Covington, she owned a house built in 1877 that burned before restoration was completed. After that heartbreak, she tackled a full rehab of another late-19th century house in Northern Kentucky, a gut job to save a property with serious structural issues.

Moving to Austin, Texas, as that city’s deputy preservation officer, she lived in a modest ranch requiring “mostly cosmetic work,” she recalls. When she returned to this region in 2016 to helm Cincinnati’s conservation office, there was no question that she’d redo something for herself to live in. “This time,” she says, “I was thinking about adaptive reuse”—that is, transforming a non-residential historic property into a home. But a year into her search, the Dombar house came on the market in foreclosure and her real estate agent rushed her to see it.

She closed on the house in April 2017 and moved in in August. “There was still work to do,” she says, “but it was livable.” Of course, one person’s “livable” is another person’s job site. Because Johnson acted as her own general contractor, she was part of the process, the progress, and the peculiarities of the project at every step.

The first order of business was accessibility. The house sits almost 50 feet down from the road, and the driveway has a sudden turn and sharp drop to the bottom. Paving it so that contractors could come and go more easily was a priority. Still, scant parking meant that subs had to be carefully coordinated.

Then there was the problem of water—getting it in and keeping it out. “We had to replace a lot of pipes downstairs,” says Johnson. Initially, the extent of the damage was unclear. “We’d say, Let’s fix this, turn it on, and see whatever leaks.”

The house had comparatively little damage from roof leaks, but the original wood in the deep eaves was sagging (“Amazing architects are not always great engineers,” Johnson allows) and the shingles were past their shelf life. The steep hillside made accessing the roof and eaves with scaffolding a challenge. “Mike Owens Roofing did an amazing job,” says Johnson. “But when they were doing it, I didn’t really come to see. It would make me too anxious.”

The all-electric house still had its original baseboard heat, inadequate and inefficient by today’s standards. Johnson explored using geothermal energy, but the drilling necessary for that type of system proved impractical on the steep site. Instead, the contractor designed an HVAC plan using two heat pumps—one for the bottom floor, another for the main and upper floors. A drop ceiling in the kitchen conceals duct work, and a closet upstairs hides the second unit. “Peak Heating and Air did a lot of calculations, studying the place to see what they could do and how the system would work so that we didn’t have to open too many walls,” she says.

Although the house hadn’t suffered the kind of water problems that ruin some neglected buildings, it had been unheated for long enough that there were places where drywall, paint, and woodwork were compromised by rising and falling temperatures. And there were smells. There hadn’t been vandalism, but a door left ajar had welcomed in wildlife. “I could still hear the raccoons,” Johnson says. After Hamilton County animal control removed them, Johnson spent weeks deep-cleaning soaked-in urine.

From clearing critters’ stench to carting off storm-felled trees, “It was a feat,” she says. “There’s nothing easy when it comes to this property.”

Ben Dombar would be glad to know that woodlands, the steep ravine, the splashing creek, and, yes, even the wildlife still shape life there. That’s why he and his wife chose the spot, says his daughter, Rockell Dombar Meese. “They loved the setting, and he thought it would make the design more interesting.”

Meese, the middle of Ben and Shirley’s three daughters, was in college at the University of Hawaii when the house was under construction. But she knew the site; when she was growing up, her family lived in North Avondale but visited here often to picnic in the thick woods alongside the stream. Initially the family owned close to two acres, land that lay on both sides of Congress Run Creek; unhappily, some of it was lost for construction of the Ronald Reagan Cross County Highway.

“I think it’s the long-term dream of an architect to build his own home,” Meese says. It was indeed her father’s dream, one that would use many of the ideas, and ideals, he’d been exploring ever since he was a teenager.

Dombar was just 17 and fresh out of Hughes High School when he joined his brother Abe to study architecture at Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wisconsin home/farm/cultural mecca where Wright schooled his apprentices in the principles of Organic Architecture. Ben stayed for seven years, assisting on a number of Wright-designed projects in the region, including the acclaimed Johnson Wax headquarters in Racine; laboring in the fields; and rubbing elbows with the famous folk who came to see Wright in his element. Even when those years were long behind Dombar, “Mr. Wright played a very big role in our lives,” Meese says. The family would go to Taliesin for reunions, and as a kid in the 1950s she remembers the Great Man patting her on the head.

Dombar returned to Cincinnati in 1941, served in WWII, and then began his professional life enabling his hometown’s booming suburban expansion. He worked with some of the city’s best-known mid-century talents, including Woody Garber, Carl Strauss, and Ray Roush, before going out on his own. Much of the work he did here reflects the Mid-Century Modern aesthetic of the day. But his teacher’s influence remained.

Shaped by Wright’s egalitarian notion of Usonian design, Dombar created dozens of homes for middle-class families in neighborhoods such as Wyoming, Amberley Village, and Paddock Hills—simple, efficient, stylish, and affordable. He designed some spectacular homes, too, most notably the arc-shaped Runnels residence on Hidden Valley Lane in Wyoming. Built in 1965, it was recently on the market for $1 million.

Realtor Susan Rissover and her husband, Arlen, are champions of Cincinnati’s mid-century architecture. She notes that few of the houses Dombar and his brother built are in obvious drive-by spots. “Many were built on modest lots, at the end of a street, or down a ravine,” she says. In a city of daunting hills, “Their style lent itself to building on previously unbuildable lots.”

And whether it was a grand project or an unpretentious one, Dombar distinguished it by his attention to detail. “My husband and I can spot a Dombar home by the tile work in the bathroom,” she says. “There’s artistry throughout.”

Beth Johnson didn’t even have to get as far as the bathroom to see that artistry. Her front door opens to a low-ceilinged entry with a rustic stone floor. It’s as if a quiet corner of the woods has been ushered inside. And in a way, it has. All of the house’s stone came from the site, carted up from the creek by Dombar and his family.

“When I was writing the nomination [for the National Trust for Historic Preservation], I went back and forth about the style: Is it Mid-Century Modern with organic influences or organic with mid-century influences?” Johnson says. “We came to the conclusion that it was Organic Architecture, designed to be in harmony with the landscape.”

The house testifies to that spirit. The compact entry leads to an open, expansive main floor, with floor-to-ceiling windows and cantilevered balconies overlooking the creek. Its hexagonal shape wasn’t merely a quirky whim: Dombar chose it to maximize the views upstream and downstream.

Homes he designed for his clients were usually long and low—horizontal and landscape-hugging in the tradition of Frank Lloyd Wright. But when he built for himself, Dombar “harmonized” with this dramatic vertical landscape, tucking this tall house into a steep hill in order to echo the terrain. The lowest level opens onto the banks of the creek; the highest looks into the treetops. “I will never tire of watching the landscape and the birds,” says Johnson. “You’re immersed in nature.”

While the site was grand, Dombar’s budget for his home was not grandiose. He hauled stones and did some of the carpentry himself. The striking central fireplace is simply decorated with a concrete slab he etched in a starburst pattern. The woodwork trim inside is simple too: redwood 1-by-4s, 1-by-2s, and 1-by-6s in grid patterns that emphasize the design’s vertical lines.

The exterior is asbestos paneling; its unconventional color is baked in and permanent. Johnson’s research indicates that the Hamilton County auditor valued the house at $13,200 in 1970, when the median value of homes in Ohio was $17,000. “It was a concept house,” Johnson explains. “Each floor is a plate that’s 1,200 square feet, the trusses could be pre-made, and the design could be adapted to the unique hillsides of Cincinnati.”

Apparently, no client ever truly grasped the concept; Dombar built nothing else based on this design. But it must have worked, because successive owners (there were two before Johnson acquired it) made few changes. The floor plan is the same as when the Dombar family lived here. No walls came down to turn the small, intimate bedrooms into sweeping suites. The galley kitchen with its stone backsplash is remarkably intact, too, with original cabinets and countertops; a built-in telephone (not working), food warmer (still working), and can opener (ditto); and an intriguing vintage mixing/blending/grinding “food center” manufactured by Cincinnati-based NuTone.

Shirley Dombar kept a Kosher kitchen, so there’s a three-bowl sink for proper food handling. She was also quite short, and her husband included pull-out steps so she could reach upper cabinets. They’re still in service, too.

The lower floor, with its separate entrance, was Dombar’s open studio, where he met with clients and worked with associates. In adapting the house for her own use, Johnson made this level her owner’s suite without disturbing the basic open floor plan, using Dombar’s central storage room as a walk-in closet and arranging furnishings so that the sleeping portion is separate from the workout area, laundry, and mechanicals.

Johnson has been keen to keep the original materials intact when possible and replace them with appropriate substitutes when necessary. Except where there is stonework, upstairs floors needed to be replaced (thanks, raccoons!). On the main level she installed cork flooring—not what the Dombar family had used, but appropriate to the home’s era and more practical for Johnson and her one-dog/two-cat household.

On the lower level, the original Armstrong vinyl composition tile had come unstuck. She was able to remove it, replace it with new tile in the same color, and send the half-century-old vinyl back to Armstrong for recycling. She was disappointed that the original tile wasn’t salvageable, but because of the recycling, she says, “I didn’t feel so bad.”

Restoring the bathrooms was a far more challenging task. Zins Plumbing worked on the quirky wall-hung toilets, sourcing parts for the outdated mechanism from a dealer who handled vintage plumbing supplies. One bathroom had been remodeled; she retiled it to be in keeping with the original design, and she was able to replicate a damaged vanity using a cupboard removed from the kitchen.

Some tasks called for scouring websites to find suitable replacements for missing fixtures. Others called for simple elbow grease. Johnson painted the interior, re-hung doors, and replaced the missing trim herself. Thanks to Dombar’s simple design, the trim was particularly easy-peasy. “It just took basic math and a miter saw,” she says.

Is it finished? The better question is, will a house like this ever be finished? Now Johnson chooses just two big projects a year, one for fall and winter, another for spring and summer. The most recent effort was adding a fence. The next will be uncovering a stone patio she discovered on an overgrown part of the property.

Whether or not the house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places won’t change her plans. Johnson has done this work—restoring wonky toilets, sourcing sympathetic materials—because she believes it’s what Ben Dombar and his home deserve. The point of having a building on the National Register, she says, is “mostly a way of recognizing and honoring the work of the person who created it. But it’s also a way of elevating the history that the building represents.”

And there’s also the issue of professional bona fides. Johnson is, after all, a preservationist. “It’s a matter of walking the walk I talk,” she says.

See more photos of the house and Dombar’s original blueprints in the gallery below.

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