Ahead of Its Time

Discovering an Amberley Village architectural gem.
Most architects would have approached this property quite differently. It’s the typical Cincinnati sloping yard, and the usual way to situate a house would have been to put the entrance on the high ground, opening to a walkout basement at the bottom of the hill.

“That’s how every other house is,” says David Steward, who owns this Amberley Village home with his partner, Pierre Friedrichs. “[Architectural designer Abrom] Dombar could have done that with this house, but he didn’t.”

Drawing on the training he received as an apprentice with Frank Lloyd Wright, Dombar nestled the L-shaped house into the hillside. Among the many great surprises of the house: The walkout is upstairs.

“That’s what talent does,” Steward says. “Talent finds creative, unusual solutions to a problem that other people would have addressed very, very differently. That’s the difference between great architecture and just building a house.”

The vision for this house actually began years before it was built in 1949, and Dombar wasn’t the original visionary. Betty and Irving Benjamin commissioned the house, and it had been Betty’s dream ever since she was a student at the University of Chicago and regularly walked past Wright’s Robie House, built in 1909. That was the beginning of her passion for Wright’s organic style of architecture that artfully blended a home with its landscape.

But an entirely Wright-designed home was never her plan. She parted ways with the architect on his notion that bedrooms and kitchens should be minimized as workspaces.

“When you walk into a Frank Lloyd Wright house, your heart skips a beat,” Benjamin says. “But then you think, ‘I don’t know if I could really live here.’ I wanted big bedrooms for my children, and a large master bedroom with a sitting area and dressing room.”

Abe Dombar was a perfect match. He had his own design style, but he was strongly influenced by his experience as a charter member of Wright’s Taliesin East Fellowship in Spring Green, Wisc., and as the first foreman on his legendary Fallingwater project.

“He worked beautifully with the land,” says David Dombar about his father, now age 96. “A difficult lot didn’t bother him. He tried to make nature and the house comfortable with each other. That’s something he learned from Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Dombar wrapped the home around the hill. On one leg of the L is a grand vista that carries from the dining room, through two separate seating areas in the living room, through a generous-sized screened-in porch and out to a patio. The other leg is a service wing on the main floor, including a kitchen and caretaker’s suite. Upstairs, it’s three spacious bedrooms, all with walkouts to a deck or a patio. Every window overlooks the woods, or an unexpected planter, or a beautiful tree, or small pond that was originally a children’s wading pool. “No matter where you are in the house, you’re always experiencing the house and the outdoors at the same time,” Steward says.

“It’s like a tree house,” Friedrichs adds.

Inside, no detail was forgotten. From the locks on every closet, to the built-in copper-lined umbrella stands, to the towel warmer in the kitchen. The luxurious bathrooms are lined top to bottom in large Carrara glass tiles. The walk-in bar area disappears behind wood-paneled doors when not in use. Two square closets are stacked on top of each other and wired for an elevator—just in case anyone ever wants one. Pull-out clothing rods are hidden within the cabinetry in the den to convert the space into a temporary guest room.

“At the time, we could have bought an elegant house in Cincinnati for $25,000,” Benjamin says. “Instead, we spent $150,000 to build this house.” Brother-in-law Charles Messer, of the Messer commercial construction firm, visited the site daily as a favor to the Benjamins. “He was known to put on a pair of gloves and rip something out if it didn’t look right to him,” she recalls.

Irving Benjamin, an entrepreneur in beer and wine distribution, understood his wife’s vision and helped bring it to life. Not everyone shared the couple’s insight, however.

“When it was built, it was so unusual,” Betty Benjamin notes. “People were not ready yet to understand this kind of architecture. We moved into the house in October 1950, and the house is just being discovered now.”

Discovered indeed. “With respect to size, location, siting and quality, this is probably one of [Dombar’s] best houses/projects I know of, “ says Chris Magee, co-founder and acting treasurer of the local Modernism group CF3 and an architect with FRCH Design Worldwide. “The house has an outstanding level of quality throughout, rich material palette, great siting, integration of indoors to outdoors. Top to bottom with detail.”

Fortunately for the house, all three owners throughout its 59-year history had nothing but the utmost respect for the integrity of the architecture. The Benjamins lived there until Irving passed away in the 1970s, when Betty sold it to the Altman family. Steward and Friedrichs purchased the home in 2005 after they moved here from New York when Steward took over as CEO of F+W Publications (now F+W Media).

“We were very lucky,” Steward says. “A lot of houses of that era had terrible mistakes made in rehabbing them over the years. [The previous owners] had really focused on maintaining rather than renovating.”

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Time had taken a toll, however, and Steward and Friedrichs spent the better part of a year bringing back the home’s original grandeur. They replaced the roof, fixed the foundation, re-graded the yard for proper drainage and to add a garden path that had been part of the home’s original plans. All the woodwork was repaired and refinished, including the exceptional random-width, random-length pegged oak floors. Air-conditioning was added to the service wing.

Others might have been tempted to update the original kitchen, but Steward and Friedrichs appreciate its vintage quality. Instead, they moved the adjoining laundry to an unfinished utility room to someday make room for a 21st-century second kitchen for Friedrichs, who is a chef.

Their favorite spaces include the master bedroom, with its view of the moon through the clerestory windows, sitting on the custom-built sofa in the living room and gazing out the picture window into the woods, and the screened porch.

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“It depends on the weather, it depends on the day, it depends on the time of day,” Friedrichs says. “All day long, it moves and there are so many great places to be.”

For Benjamin, that’s an unanswerable question. “The house was mine from top to bottom and from side to side. There was no favorite part.”

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Friedrichs and Steward are moving back to New York for Steward’s work, so the Benjamin House is up for sale. The heavy lifting is largely done, but perhaps the new owners will finish that second kitchen or dress up the deck off the master bedroom. Whatever they choose to do, the Cincinnati Modern community is holding its breath, hoping that it will be respectful of the home’s original character.

“When the architecture is true,” Benjamin says, “the house will be as good 100 years from now as it is today.”

Photography by Ryan Kurtz

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