Benjamin Dombar (1916 - 2006)
In 1934, Ben Dombar arrived at Taliesin to study with Frank Lloyd Wright. Ben's older brother Abe was already there. The younger Dombar was 17 years old and had just graduated Hughes High School in Cincinnati. Ben Dombar had a more cheerful and extroverted personality than his brother and got along better at Taliesin, staying for seven years, until 1941. He was popular, based upon frequent mentions of him in memoirs by other Taliesin members. Ben worked to pay his way at the school and served a year in the Taliesin kitchen for a corresponding year of tuition. Ben became one of Wright’s favorite apprentices for construction supervision. Between 1935 and 1939, he assisted in building several Wright-designed houses, many of them “Usonians,” in the Madison, Wisconsin area. His assistance to Wright included work on the Johnson’s Wax Corporate Headquarters at Racine, WI; supervisory work at Taliesin East itself, the Bernard Schwartz House in Twin Rivers, WI (1939), and the Charles and Dorothy Manson House in Wausau, WI (c. 1938-40, at 1224 Highland Park Blvd.). Ben claimed that, between 1934-41, he participated in the design and construction of approximately 50 of Wright’s projects.
Benjamin and Shirley Dombar House, 601 West Galbraith Road, Cincinnati, OH, 1967+. Perspective drawing by Ben Dombar. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries
Ben Dombar left Taliesin in 1941, the year the United States entered WW II. He was drafted into the army in 1942 and remained until 1945; also in 1942, he married his wife Shirley. Although Ben did not return permanently to Wright after his discharge, he obtained his architectural license in 1945 and he and Shirley visited for extended periods at Taliesin. Ben thus kept in close touch with Wright and his projects through the 1940s and 1950s and remained aware of all Wright’s new buildings. In fact, Wright so much trusted Ben's construction supervision that he retained him to supervise some of his commissions in the Midwest and South, such as Wright's Kraus Family house in St. Louis, MO (1948-52) and Wright's Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum House in Florence, AL (1940, with additions in 1948). In 1954-56, Ben supervised construction of Wright’s house in Cincinnati for Cedric and Patricia Boulter (and in 1958 supervised an addition to it). [Read more on Boulter House]. However, because Ben's practice outlasted that of Wright by over three decades, he received commissions for many new building types such as drive-in restaurants, motels, and both drive-in and multi-plex cinemas that had not existed during Wright’s career. In his own Cincinnati practice, Ben was highly organized and productive: he claimed to have served over 1,500 clients and to have designed over 1,000 buildings between the mid 1940s and the 1980s. Ben seemed particularly close to his residential clients and would often return to make changes, additions, alterations, and repairs to his houses—sometimes into the second and third generations of owners. His houses are often recognizably Wrightian-organic and interact well with the dramatic landscapes of Cincinnati and the Ohio River Valley.
Ben Dombar’s buildings, like those of Wright, are often based upon modular plans using squares, parallelograms, triangles, hexagons, octagons, and circles. They often begin with a small and innocuous entry and then dramatically open to nature—often with extensive views of the Ohio River or other dramatic topography in which the region abounds. As is evident from his architectural drawings, Ben Dombar considered not only the building itself but extended his design thinking into the landscape. Among his favorite drawing types for studying the relationship between buildings and their sites were aerial perspectives and eye-level perspectives, both types showing his buildings within their larger landscape settings. Ben Dombar frequently used local materials, some directly from the building site itself. Other Wrightian features such as horizontal compositions, low overhanging roofs, corner windows, open carports, passive solar design, and radiant floor heating, appear in Ben Dombar's houses.
Jerome Mellman Residence, 7708 Creekwood Lane, Amberley Village, Cincinnati, OH, aerial perspective drawing by Ben Dombar [date unknown].
While scholars sometimes question the quality of Wright’s architectural education at Taliesin, Ben Dombar’s boundless enthusiasm, creativity, and productivity—along with the hundreds of high-quality buildings he built in Cincinnati and beyond—seem a recommendation for Taliesin’s training. Ben Dombar also played a significant role in the architectural profession in Cincinnati. He was a long-time member of the Cincinnati Architectural Society and its president in 1950-52 (he hand-drew many of the posters for its events). He also served as president of the Cincinnati chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1950-52.
Ben Dombar’s daughter, Rockell D. Meese, recently donated his surviving architectural drawings to the University of Cincinnati. Like his projects, these number in the thousands. The process of organizing, cataloguing, and researching this important collection has only just begun (the donation occurred in 2017). A full assessment of Ben Dombar’s architectural career, buildings, and clients must await further organized research into this large collection but, in the meantime, drawings for a selection of his projects are presented as representative of his work in the Cincinnati region.
Benjamin Dombar: Selection of Projects and Drawings
Houses and Residential Projects
Specklin (now Rudisell) Residence, 2739 Cliff Road, North Bend, OH 45052, 1951
A long, one-story house with an orthogonal, L-shaped plan, hugging the ridge of its spectacular, hillside site above the Ohio River. Built of natural stone and red-stained wood, the house later received an addition of a larger living room to the south (left side of the photo, behind the flagpole), also by Ben Dombar. (Photograph by
Elizabeth Meyer, 2017. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries)
Bartelt House, Galbraith Road, Wyoming, Cincinnati, OH, 1953. Photograph provided by Chris Magee
Supervised construction of Frank Lloyd Wright's Boulter House for Cedric and Patricia Boulter, 1 Rawson Woods Circle, Clifton, Cincinnati, 1954-56
Frank Saffel Residence, 852 Ridgeway Ave., Walnut Hills, Cincinnati, OH, c. 1957
A small, Usonian house of concrete block construction; it resembles Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Usonian Automatic" Tonkens House, Cincinnati, of 1955. This design by Ben Dombar, however, may have utilized commercially available concrete blocks rather than the custom-cast blocks on a grid of steel bars that Wright used for his Usonian Automatic houses. In Ben Dombar's perspective drawing of the Saffel House, however, the overhanging roofs seem to be of concrete block. This would have required horizontal reinforcing bars, but in the house as-built, the roof edges appear to be of wood rather than block. In his handsome perspective drawing, Ben Dombar shaded the undersides of the roofs in a Taliesin Red color that reflects onto the block walls below.
Cholak Residence, 6740 Kincaid Road, Pleasant Ridge, Cincinnati, OH, 1954
A house striking for its bold, sculptural, and asymmetrical composition. Wide overhangs and cantilevered decks give the house a Wrightian aesthetic. Like many of Wright's Prairie Style houses, services are in a low first story while the principal family and entertaining rooms are above in the upper story. The original owners spent only three years in the house, reputedly experiencing anti-Semitic sentiments in the neighborhood. This perhaps indicates the unwelcome attention that a striking, modern house in Cincinnati could bring to a Jewish family in a non-Jewish neighborhood. Ben Dombar nonetheless kept a watchful eye on the house, becoming a family friend of later owners and consulting on updates and repairs. (Photograph by Matt McCachran. From the University
of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries)
Stone House Overlooking River Valley, Diamond Unit [date unknown but probably 1950s].
Evidently a prototype design, Ben Dombar combined plan and perspective drawings to show a small house of stone, overlooking a distant river from a wooded hillside—like many sites in the Ohio River Valley. A modest design that Wright would have considered “Usonian,” the house has two small bedrooms, a combined living-dining area and a small kitchen-workspace. The plan is a truncated L-shape designed on a four-foot diagonal grid. A walled, outdoor terrace occupies the interior angle of the L. The roofs are flat and the living-dining area has a higher roof with clerestory windows. The sloping site suggests spaces at a lower, or basement level.
William Lloyd Residence, Wyoming, Cincinnati, OH, 1961
A design for a two-story, curving house with its entrance on the inner side of the curve; a sloping site suggests that the design had three stories on its outer, downhill curve. It may have served as a prototype for Ben Dombar’s Runnels House (below). [unknown whether built]
Runnels Residence, 458 Hidden Valley Lane, Wyoming, Cincinnati, OH, 1965
One of Ben Dombar's largest and most ambitious houses, he entitled this design "Good Living." The semi-circular plan echoes Frank Lloyd Wright’s “solar hemicycle” houses (for example, the 1944 Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House in Middleton, WI and the 1947 E. L. Marting House project for Northampton, OH). Wright’s solar hemicycle houses had curved walls designed to shield the house from the north and open it to the south for passive heating in winter—but with deep roof overhangs to shade it from the summer sun. Ben Dombar’s Runnels House is semi-circular and built into the edge of a wooded, hillside site. The inner arc opens onto a stone patio with a waterfall and forms a one-story entry facade while the outer arc opens in two levels toward the hillside with sliding windows, balconies and decks overlooking the creek below. Interior features include a walnut inlaid front door, parquet floors, sunken bathtubs, radiant-heated floors and ceilings, and a rock garden and fountain under the staircase. (Photograph by Susan Rissover. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries)
Steven Leiter Residence, 3168 Esther Drive, Amberley Village, Cincinnati, OH, 1965
A shallow, V-shaped, "butterfly" roof covers this house, with dramatic extended eaves and balconies supported on canted posts. The entrance is in the center, under the valley of the V-roof. A garage is to the right while the living spaces open to the left, with large windows and a screened-in porch connecting to the out-of-doors. The sloping site creates a lower level that opens at-grade onto a terrace under the porch. (Photograph by
Stuart Holman. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries)
Dr. And Mrs. W. C. Testerman House, Wilmington Rd., Lebanon, OH, designed and first constructed in 1950-54; completed in 1969-70
An elaborate design, shown in an aerial perspective, with a pair of raised, two-story circular pavilions of unequal size, connected by one-story wings. The larger pavilion contains the 27-foot diameter living room; the smaller contains the 17-foot diameter family room. Construction is of wood framing. The living-dining areas have full-length windows opening onto a surrounding terrace that is partly protected by the flat, overhanging roof. The house is beautifully integrated into the rolling landscape of its rural site, with lovely views of the surrounding farmland, particularly to the north and west. The house won an award by the Illuminating Engineering Society for its interior lighting [Sunday, 15 Nov. 1970, 1-E]. The composition of the Testerman house, with its circular pavilions, recalls Frank Lloyd Wright’s Friedman Residence of 1948 in Pleasantville, NY. The Testerman House, after being long abandoned, was recently purchased by new owners who have done an extensive restoration / rehabilitation of it. (Photograph by Elizabeth Meyer, 2018. )
Benjamin and Shirley Dombar House, 601 W. Galbraith Road, Cincinnati, OH 45215, 1967+
The final house of the architect and his wife, this is a four-level hexagon, dramatically located on a steep site above Congress Run Creek, in a ravine full of other Mid-Century-Modern houses, called “The Colony.” The Dombars’ house is of wood-frame construction with infill panels; it has a low, overhanging roof, a radiating plan, and extensive windows and cantilevered balconies overlooking the creek. The ground level has an open patio and services beneath the house; the first floor originally contained Ben Dombar’s office-studio and drafting area. The second floor contained the living-dining areas centered on a large fireplace, a study, and a master bedroom, with a kitchen at the core. The third story contained further bedrooms. A new owner has recently acquired this house and is doing extensive restoration work.
Selected Religious and Educational Buildings
Cincinnati Hebrew Day School (drawings labeled “Hebrew School for Choetz Chaim”), 7855 Dawn Rd. (Roselawn), Cincinnati, OH, construction photograph, c.1962-63
A circular school building with radiating classrooms ranging from Kindergarten through the 8th Grade. All have perimeter windows above a low, brick foundation wall. A circular corridor serves the classrooms and is lit by clerestory windows. The outer classrooms and the corridor have flat roofs, while the circular center of the building contains a multipurpose space used variously for dining, gymnasium, auditorium, and synagogue. This central space is covered by a low, wood-framed “triax” dome, of structural triangles, built on the ground and then hoisted into position with a crane (surviving construction photographs by the architect show this process). A perspective drawing shows a second, smaller, circular building connected to the larger building by a glass corridor; evidently this “satellite” building remained unbuilt. Ben Dombar's domed, circular school building recalls circular educational designs by Frank Lloyd Wright, including buildings at Florida Southern College, Lakeland, FL (1938-1950s) and a Juvenile Cultural Center for the University of Wichita, Kansas (designed, 1958).
Religious Educational Building for Adath Israel Synagogue, 3201 East Galbraith Road, Amberley Village, Cincinnati, OH 45236, 1972
An aerial perspective drawing shows a three-story, rectangular classroom building added to the c. 1967 Synagogue.
Jewish Temple / Synagogue for Congregation Bene Abraham, 1239 Second St., Portsmouth, OH, 1973-74
A small, brick building with a low, walled, entry forecourt. The plan of the synagogue is a modified hexagon with a perfect, hexagonal sanctuary, a larger, part-hexagon social hall (that can be joined to the sanctuary through folding, partition walls) and a corridor with surrounding support spaces such as kitchen, restrooms, and a study. The sanctuary has a high, hexagonal roof that rises above the rest of the building with tall, clerestory windows of stained glass that dramatically light the sanctuary from all sides. [building survives as part of Shawnee State University] (Photograph by Patrick Snadon, 2018)
Selected Commercial Buildings
“1 Hour dura-cleaning” drive-in laundry and dry-cleaners, Section Road, Cincinnati, OH [designed 1953; 1985 Section Road, near Amberley Village]
A dramatic perspective drawing by Ben Dombar shows a simple, one-story service building fronted by a double-height lobby from which extends a dramatic, V-shaped, “butterfly” roof supported in tension from a canted pier containing integral signage.
Carter’s Drive-In Restaurant, Montgomery Road, Cincinnati, OH
A one-story, nearly square restaurant with a two-story entry pavilion. The main building is extensively glazed and built of textured concrete block, with overhanging canopies surrounding it. [date unknown; unknown whether built]
Murray’s Beauty Salon [location and date unknown]
A glazed shopfront with floor-to-ceiling plate glass panels held by metal posts in an inward-sweeping curve. Possibly a remodeling within an existing, downtown building. [unknown whether built]
Floating Steak House [location and date unknown]
A design for a hexagonal restaurant to be built atop a rectangular, barge-like base, floating on a river and connected to the shore by three, pier-like bridges. On the river side is a dock for boats. The hexagon restaurant resembles a lower version of the Dombar’s 1967 house on Galbraith Road (above). The shallow, hexagon roof overhangs the sides which are extensively glazed and have projecting, cantilevered balconies for outdoor dining. The setting shown in Ben Dombar’s aerial perspective drawing could be the Ohio River. [unknown whether built]
Bull’s Eye Motel, 8001 Reading Road, Cincinnati, OH [date unknown]
This drive-in motel was designed with two, intersecting cylinders of glass rising between low, orthogonal, one-story wings. The low wings, of textured concrete block, contain the guest rooms and anchor the central, glass cylinders which are drawn with palm trees and other large plants in them, like a conservatory or greenhouse—though they might be intended to contain a heated, indoor pool. The overhanging roofs of the glass cylinders are canted on opposing diagonals. Open, carport-like canopies with drive-throughs for automobiles connect the wings to the central cylinders. In front of the building, a large, circular sign, like a giant LP record turned on edge, is anchored in a planter base and announces the name of the motel. [unknown whether built]
Queen City Motel, intended for a site in Cincinnati, OH [location and date unknown]
In Ben Dombar’s aerial perspective drawing this motel complex is shown as consisting of a two-story, semicircular building with guest rooms; the second story rooms have balconies on both the inner and outer curving faces, overhung by the broad, flat roof. Parking is on both the outer and inner surfaces, suggesting that the plan contains a curving, double-loaded corridor serving opposing rooms. In the center of the complex is a smaller, circular building, presumably containing the motel lobby and dining facilities. An extended canopy provides a covered, drive-through entry. A glass dome is in the center of this building and may be intended to cover an indoor pool. At one end of the semicircular guest room building is an open pavilion with a triangular roof that may be for outdoor activities or dining. This large complex takes the form of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “solar hemicycle” houses and is reminiscent of Ben Dombar’s Runnels House (above). [unknown whether built]