Frank Lloyd Wright and Cincinnati Modernism: An Introduction

Many buildings in and around Cincinnati appear to have been designed by America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). Wright would, for various reasons, seem a good match for the city. Cincinnati is a Midwestern town and Wright was principally a Midwestern architect, focusing his practice on Illinois and Wisconsin.

Portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright

If there is anything atypical in Cincinnati’s Midwestern status, it is the city's location in the Ohio River Valley. This gives it an extraordinarily varied topography, with hills, valleys, streams, ravines, and spectacular river views—always surprising to first-time visitors who expect a typically flat, Midwestern grid-iron town. Wright built his architectural theory and practice around “American," organic design principles such as integrating buildings into their landscapes and using natural colors and local materials such as brick, stone, wood, and concrete (which Wright considered a form of reconstituted stone). Wright's "Organic" Modernism responded well to Cincinnati's geography.

Robie House

Robie House, Chicago, IL, 1910, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photograph Dan Smith. 2004. Wikipedia Commons.

Fallingwater/Kauffmann House

Fallingwater, the Kauffmann House, Bear Run, PA, 1935-36, by Frank Lloyd Wright. CC Max Pixel.

Like many Midwestern cities at mid-century, however, Cincinnati was socially rather conservative. Even local clients who desired modern design tended to be wary of full-on International Style Modernism, with its flat roofs, bare surfaces, lack of ornament, abstract compositions, machine-made materials, and sometimes chilly, hygienic character. By contrast, Wright’s organic buildings exhibited daring, modern compositions but seemed warm, home-like, colorful, and beautifully integrated into their natural sites.

Taliesin (left), Farnsworth House (right)

Wright's Organic Modern vs. International Style Modern: Taliesin, Spring Green, WI, 1911+ by Frank Lloyd Wright (left) vs. Farnsworth House, Plano, IL, 1945-51 by Mies van der Rohe (right). Wikipedia Commons.

It should thus be no surprise that one sees many "Wrightian-organic" buildings in Cincinnati. The city’s location, topography, and character all seemed to make the appeal of Wright's architecture inevitable. But Wright actually designed only three buildings for Cincinnati—all residences. They are the Boulter House in Clifton of 1953-56; The Tonkens House in Amberley Village of 1955-56; and the Boswell House in Indian Hill of 1957-59. [Read more on Boulter House, Tonkens House and Boswell House]

Boulter House

Boulter House, Cincinnati, OH (Clifton), 1953-56, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photograph by Alice Weston. ca. 1990s. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC

Tonkens House

Tonkens House, Cincinnati, OH (Amberley Village), 1955-56, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photograph by Alice Weston. ca. 1990s. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

Boswell House

Boswell House, Cincinnati, OH (Indian Hill), 1957-59, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photograph by Mark Ostrowski. 2008. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

These three houses—all handsome designs and important to the city’s architectural character—are nonetheless relatively small projects that came in the last five years of Wright’s long life, when he was so famous that similar commissions poured in from all around the country. So, the question is: why do so many buildings in Cincinnati look like they could be by Wright, while so few buildings actually are by Wright?

Benjamin Residence

Benjamin Residence, 7001 Knoll Road, Cincinnati, OH, 1949, by Abrom Dombar (Taliesin Fellow and pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright). Photograph by Susan Rissover. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries

If the topography and scenery of the Ohio River Valley made Wright’s Organic Modernism and its response to site especially appealing in Cincinnati, the city’s social conservatism cut two ways: while it made Wright’s natural, relaxed, and "homey" houses more appealing than the elegant but reductionist purism of the International Style, the city's "conservative" morals may have prevented Wright from practicing here in the earlier phases of his career.

Wright’s personal life was as notorious as his buildings were famous. The Cincinnati newspapers and those around the nation followed his scandal-filled career, which included adultery, divorce, madness, and murder. If, on the one hand, Cincinnati “needed" Wright’s Organic Modernism for reasons of both topography and taste, on the other hand, Wright himself must have seemed controversial, even to more progressive Cincinnati clients. [Read more: Wright's scandals in the Newspapers]

Two articles on Frank Lloyd Wright's  "love scandals"  from the Cincinnati Enquirer (1911)

Two articles on Frank Lloyd Wright's "love scandals" from the Cincinnati Enquirer, December 18, 1911; and December 31, 1911.

The “solution" was a small army of talented, local Wright surrogates. Cincinnati's “Wright-squad” included two categories: Cincinnati architects directly trained by Wright (Wright "pupils") and Cincinnati architects who had no first-hand contact with Wright but who knew and admired his work and adapted his organic design principles to the local context (Wright "followers"). Both Wright's Cincinnati pupils and followers produced significant works.

Wright’s Pupils in Cincinnati

During the 1930s, two Cincinnati architect-brothers, Abrom and Benjamin Dombar, studied with Wright at Taliesin, his home-school-office at Spring Green, Wisconsin. The brothers were Jewish. Both returned to Cincinnati and, from the 1940s on, designed quantities of buildings for the region utilizing Wrightian-organic principles, many of them for Jewish clients. [Read more: The Dombar Brothers, Abrom Dombar and Benjamin Dombar]

K. K. Bene Abraham Jewish Synagogue