Nicknamed the City of Seven Hills, and filled with countless others due to the carving and cleaving of an Ice Age glacier, Cincinnati is often challenging terrain for architects. Between the rivers and inclines, it’s filled with difficult lots for homebuilders. Brothers Abrom and Ben Dombar used their city’s landscape as inspiration, designing unique floorplans not for creativity’s sake, but to capture the rough, natural beauty of the surroundings.
“The unique topography often drove the geometry,” says Chris Magee, a local architect at GBBN Architects who lives in a Dombar home. “They did modern homes for the common man, and plenty for rich people in town.”
Or, as Abrom’s son told Cincinnati Magazine, “He tried to make the house and nature comfortable with each other.”
Sons of a conservative Russian-Jewish harness maker from Odessa, the brothers found inspiration, like many of their generation, from Frank Lloyd Wright. Both joined the Taliesin Fellowship in the ’30s. Abrom was a charter member at Taliesin and a foreman and site architect at Fallingwater—during college at the University of Cincinnati, he snuck into a speech Wright was giving and was captivated. Ben dropped out of high school at age 17 to join his brother in Spring Green, Wisconsin. In the late ’50s, he helped Wright finish the Boulter House in Cincinnati while the master architect was at work on the Guggenheim.
Both left the fellowship in 1941 to serve in the military (Abrom in the Army, Ben in the Air Force), but organic architecture would remain a pivotal philosophy throughout their careers. While their parents saw Taliesin as “cult,” according to Susan Rissover, a realtor who operates the site Cincinnati Modern, the brother’s roots drew them back home.
The postwar housing boom was good business for the brothers, who exceeded their goals of setting up a hometown practice, designing more than 1,000 homes, synagogues, churches, apartments, factories, and other buildings. Many of the Dombar homes, with flat roofs and a pitch with a clerestory window and wide overhangs, still stand out for their attractive, modern profile.
Magee says the siblings had a tumultuous relationship, often working side by side, but also going through periods of working apart. Ben was the registered architect—he’d stamp some of the designs, regardless of authorship, which leads to some confusion over who did what—while Abrom was a pure artist and designer who was never technically licensed. Ben was also known for his friendly manner with clients, making “house calls” to help with repairs or answer questions, even for the second or third owners of a home.
“He treated these houses like they were his patients,” says Rissover.
Buildings to know
The Dombars’ signature elements includes butterfly roofs and lots of symmetry and glass. Every site, even the ones declared unbuildable, were a chance to “frame nature.” Ben designed a spectacular four-story hexagonal home for himself in Congress Run Creek in Springfield Township in 1967. The Wyoming House was meant to “help bring the outside in,” he told the Cincinnati Post-Star. It’s currently being renovated by a new owner, says Magee. Another Ben Dombar beauty, also in Wyoming, an arcing half-moon residence hidden down a private road that hugs the treeline and a nearby creek, had the phrase “good living” written on its blueprints. In Amberley Village, a L-shaped hillside home by Abrom has been celebrated for its unorthodox layout (a historic center of the Jewish community, the first-ring suburb is filled with Dombar designs).
Legacy and reputation today
Both of the brothers were well known within the local architectural community, and Ben briefly served as president of the AIA. While they didn’t always get to push boundaries with their work, nor were they necessarily the most famous of the region’s midcentury practitioners, such as Carl Strauss, their work, often for clients of more modest means, brought Wrightian style and aesthetics to Cincinnati. It is still treasured by midcentury enthusiasts, especially during the rare times it hits the market.
“Of all the homes I’ve sold over the years, these are special homes,” says Rissover, who lived in a Abe Dombar design. “They’re real works of art.”