The Dombar Brothers
Two Cincinnati architect-brothers, Abrom (Abe) and Benjamin (Ben) Dombar, studied with Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1932, Wright opened Taliesin, his combined home-school-office near Spring Green, Wisconsin and began to take live-in apprentices who did everything from growing food, to assisting in the drafting room, to designing and building. Among Wright’s first pupils of the early 1930s were the Dombars. They were unusual as brothers who studied simultaneously at Taliesin; they were also among Wright’s relatively few Jewish pupils. Both returned to Cincinnati after several years at Taliesin and established their own practices. With an enthusiastic Jewish clientele, the Dombars introduced their personal versions of Wrightian-organic Modernism to Cincinnati.
Left: Abrom Dombar (1912-2009). From "Abrom Dombar Autobiography" (Copy in DAAP Library, University of Cincinnati);
Right: Benjamin Dombar (1916-2006). From Benjamin Dombar Collection, DAAP Library, University of Cincinnati
The brothers’ father was a Jewish craftsman and harness maker in Odessa, Russia who emigrated to Cincinnati in 1906. He moved his family to North Vernon, Indiana in 1910, where he purchased a harness shop. The boys were thus reared in a semi-rural setting that gave them an appreciation for nature and predisposed them to Wright’s organic architecture. The family returned to Cincinnati in 1923 and lived in the suburb of Avondale where both boys attended Avondale School. They then attended Hughes High School in Cincinnati.
Three main factors influenced the Dombars and their architectural careers: their study with Frank Lloyd Wright; their Jewish heritage and connection to a progressive Jewish clientele; and the topographical context of Cincinnati, including its sinuous river, dramatic hills, and adventurous building sites.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s teachings, writings, and buildings made a lifelong impact on both brothers. Although Ben Dombar spent longer with Wright and got along better at Taliesin than his older brother Abe, both brothers after returning to Cincinnati continued to follow Wright’s new work through the 1940s and 1950s—almost as if they never “left” Taliesin. Wright’s brand of Organic Modernism, with its sensitivity to site and focus on natural, often local, materials such as stone, brick, and wood, found a larger audience in Cincinnati than did the more abstract and technologically-oriented International Style. Cincinnati’s varied topography provided dramatic sites—and challenges—to its architects, challenges that Modernism generally, and Wrightian-organic Modernism in particular, handled well, through its progressive planning and innovative structural solutions. Cincinnati may have presented more daily topographic challenges and opportunities to the Dombars than Frank Lloyd Wright himself encountered. The Dombars’ careers ultimately outlasted Wright's by three decades. They practiced through the 1960s and 1970s; in Ben Dombar’s case into the 1980s. They adapted the organic principles of Taliesin to newer and more automotive-oriented building types than Wright, even with his love of cars, could have imagined. The Dombars’ work includes numerous commercial projects for motor inns, drive-in theaters, drive-thru restaurants and drive-in dry cleaners---new building types that Wright hardly lived to see. What the Dombars brought to all their post-Taliesin work, however, was Wright’s sense of structural daring, his bold, geometric compositions, and his use of natural materials.
Dahlman Residence, 2656 Fair Oaks Lane, Cincinnati, OH, by Abrom Dombar, 1952. Photograph by Matthew McCachran, 2009. From the University of Cincinnati Digital Collections & Repositories @UC Libraries
The Dombars and Cincinnati's Jewish populace were a marriage made in heaven. Jewish Cincinnatians seemed disproportionately involved in patronizing modern art and architecture in the city and were apparently delighted to have their “own” modern architects. The brothers designed well over a thousand local buildings between them, particularly residences. Many, though not all, of their clients were Jewish. In the history of Cincinnati Modernism the Dombars are unique. In a conservative town where most Modernist architects competed for clients, jobs came easily to the Dombars. It is as if Cincinnati Modernism developed two separate "economies": that of the Dombars, with their almost endless supply of predominantly Jewish clients, and that of the "other" Modernist architects, who frequently struggled for their commissions. It is likely that the architectural output of the Dombars exceeded that of all other Cincinnati Modernist architects combined; in quantity alone, the Dombars must be counted as Cincinnati's most successful Modernist practitioners. One imagines that, for many middle- and upper-middle-class Jewish clients, a custom-designed Dombar house represented a valued status symbol and an alternative to builder-designed, post-war tract houses. The Dombars' clients had the gratification of being progressive and modern, but without "standing out" as conspicuously within Cincinnati's rather conservative context as International Style modern buildings would have done. Many Cincinnati Jewish clients undoubtedly wanted to be "modern," but without making themselves into targets of prejudice. The Dombars' houses, despite their bold compositions, employed reassuringly Wrightian-organic materials and colors that blended them into their natural settings.
With their extensive network of Jewish clients and their phenomenal output of designs and buildings in Cincinnati, the Dombars are one of the great but little recognized stories of Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence in America. It might be argued that their many, middle-class, suburban, Wrightian-organic houses constitute a kind of dispersed “monument" to Cincinnati’s mid-century Jewish community. The Dombars fulfilled, at least in Cincinnati, Wright’s dream of providing popular, organic housing for middle-class Americans.
Many Dombar-designed residences are in automotive suburbs, which began to open to Jewish residents for the first time after WW II. Jewish families clustered in specific areas such as Amberley Village and Wyoming that developed Jewish synagogues, schools and groceries. The Dombars designed mostly middle- and upper-middle-class houses rather than the largest and most elite Modernist residences. (In fact, some of the more elite Jewish families in Cincinnati hired other Modernist architects more allied with the International Style: the Lazarus and Shillito families, for example, who owned the city’s two largest department stores, commissioned houses from local Modernist architects Strauss and Roush and Woodie Garber respectively). But in the city's middle-class Jewish population, the Dombars had a wide and eager clientele.
Strong reasons existed for Jewish clients to like Wright's Organic Modernism. For one, Wright himself, despite occasional flashes of antisemitism typical of the period, had a number of high-profile Jewish patrons for whom he designed spectacular and widely published buildings, including the Kauffmanns of "Fallingwater" and the Guggenheims of New York. This surely recommended Wright's Organic Modernism to aesthetically progressive Jewish clients nationwide. It is also likely that, following WW II, Jewish clients wanted to look to the future, while popular revival styles such as "Tudor" and “Colonial” were backward-looking and had little to do with Jewish history. International Style Modernism, despite its origins in the liberal, Weimar Republic and the Nazis' ultimate rejection of it, may nonetheless have seemed overly "German" for the taste of many American Jews and may also have seemed too daring for Cincinnati, where it might attract negative attention.
The Dombar brothers’ work in Cincinnati throws new light on Wright himself. Wright always aimed for a popular audience and shaped his approach to architectural practice accordingly. By contrast, the theoreticians and practitioners of International Style Modernism tended to aim for exclusivity, as in the 1932 Museum of Modern Art exhibition and catalog that gave the International Style its name. The catalog (The International Style, 1932, by Hitchcock and Johnson) was not only an exercise in defining the style, but in excluding architects who did not conform to its "rules"--including Wright himself. While International Style Modernism was mostly published in professional architectural journals like Progressive Architecture and Architectural Record, Wright allied himself with House Beautiful, a popular magazine for the general public. Even Wright's drawings aimed at popularity. International Style architects often abstracted (or avoided) perspective drawings--the most easily "readable" and hence "popular" of architectural drawing types--in favor of more “rational" drawings like axonometrics, which laypeople often have difficulty understanding. Wright, by contrast, elevated beautiful perspective drawings to a high level of artistry that appealed greatly to his clients and to laypeople generally. Like Wright, the Dombars used perspectives extensively, particularly Wrightian-type aerial perspectives that show buildings from above, set in naturalistic, landscaped settings. The Dombars' striking and easy-to-understand drawings undoubtedly helped them communicate their ideas more effectively to their clients and to the public at large, thus increasing their popular appeal.
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
While the Taliesin-trained architect-brothers occasionally practiced together, their careers largely developed along separate lines. They worked together briefly in 1947, when Abe Dombar opened his own office and hired his younger brother Ben as his “draftsman.” This arrangement lasted only two months and may help to explain the apparent tensions in the brothers’ professional relations: Abe may have overplayed the role of “big brother” and “boss.” The brothers practiced together again in 1967-68, but this professional relationship lasted a short time. While the Dombars’ training, design principles, and buildings are similar, their practices remained mostly distinct.