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.
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, Chicago, IL, 1910, by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photograph Dan Smith. 2004. Wikipedia Commons.
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.
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, 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, 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, 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, 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, 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, Portsmouth, Ohio, 1974, by Benjamin Dombar. Photograph by Patrick Snadon.
Another Wright pupil, John deKoven Hill, though not from Cincinnati, designed one major commission in the city: the Corbett House, which became, in 1960, House Beautiful magazine’s “Pace Setter House of the Year.” It is a luxurious residence in the Wrightian style, splashed conspicuously across two issues of the magazine (February and March, 1960). In addition to accommodating the family, the house acted as a showcase for new materials and technologies from the magazine’s advertisers. Many of the new electronic devices in the residence came from husband J. Ralph Corbett’s Cincinnati business, the “NuTone” household electronics firm; his wife, Patricia Corbett, herself a professional musician, became one of Cincinnati’s legendary art patrons and staged many philanthropic receptions and musical events in the house. [Read more: John deKoven Hill and the Corbett House]
Corbett House, Cincinnati, 1958-60, by John deKoven Hill (Taliesin Fellow and pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright). Photograph by Elizabeth Meyer. 2008. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries
Wright’s Followers in Cincinnati
A second category of "Wrightian" architects in Cincinnati were those whom Wright influenced through his built and published designs, though they did not study directly with him as did the Dombars and Hill. Chief among these Cincinnati “followers” of Wright was R. Carl Freund, who brilliantly adapted Wright’s Organic Modernism for use in Cincinnati’s parks. By the mid-20th-century, Cincinnati had one of the finest park systems in the nation. Cincinnati’s parks include some of the city's most rugged and varied terrain--often judged unbuildable-on. Freund’s delightful park pavilions and other utilitarian structures occupy hillsides, ravines, and promontories, enhancing and adding immeasurably to Cincinnati’s public landscapes. [Read more: Parkitect: Carl Freund and Organic Modernism in Cincinnati’s Public Landscapes]
Oak Ridge Lodge, Mt. Airy Forest Park, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1948, by R. Carl Freund. Photograph by Elizabeth Meyer. 2018.
Wright's pupils the Dombars and admirer-followers like Freund followed his organic principles so closely that their buildings are often recognizably “Wrightian.” In the case of other Modernist architects in Cincinnati, however, Wright’s influence was more subtle. Cincinnati’s inherent conservatism meant that few clients felt comfortable with the more extreme abstractions of International Style Modernism. A number of local architects—who probably felt more sympathy for International Style Modernism than did their clients—“diluted” their Modernist designs with Wrightian-organic forms and the use of natural and local materials.
Keirle House, Cincinnati, OH (Clifton), by Carl Strauss and Ray Roush, 1960. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries. Some of Cincinnati's best Modernist buildings combine International Style forms and materials with local, organic materials and a "Wrightian" response to the City's dramatic topography. The Keirle House resembles a wood-frame version of the "Farnsworth House" perched above a ravine, on a wooden "trestle."
Cincinnati’s “Wright Revival"
Frank Lloyd Wright himself appealed to Cincinnati clients only in the last half-decade of his life, when his scandals were forgotten and his fame secure. By the time Wright died in 1959, however, the city had not yet had enough of him. Not only did Wright’s Cincinnati pupils and followers continue to practice into the 1960s-70s, but a kind of “Wright revival” ensued. This includes buildings that consciously emulated those from Wright’s earlier career; new buildings that display “watered down” Wrightian features; and a recent house built by Cincinnati clients based upon an unbuilt one that Wright designed in the 1930s. Cincinnati’s continuing interest in Wright also includes restorations of the three, original Wright houses in the city. Unfortunately, however, Wright’s increasing popularity has not translated into an appreciation of his larger influence on Cincinnati and, as a result, an interesting, Wrightian-style building has lately been demolished. [Read more: Reviving Wright in Cincinnati]
University of Cincinnati Faculty Center (1969) by Celarius & Hilmer; and Myers Alumni Center (1988) by Glaser, Myers & Associates , Cincinnati, OH. Demolition photo by Elizabeth Meyer, Spring, 2017.
Probably the best measure of Wright’s greatness as an architect is not just in the works he himself designed and built—brilliant and extensive as they are—but in the wider influence he exerted on American cities like Cincinnati. The temptation is to value buildings only from Wright’s own hand, but in Cincinnati they are but one chapter in a larger and more interesting story.