by Beth Johnson
“A large 4-story yellow hexagon on the side of a hill on a wooded lot overlooking a creek” is how I provide a quick description of my house when I first describe it to someone. After I get a look marked with confusion and intrigue, I often explain that this was the house and studio of Benjamin Dombar, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. He designed the home in the organic architecture style that he was taught from his time with Wright.
Throughout the house there are elements and influences from the midcentury modern style that was the prominent style of his practice. Buildings such as the Runnels House, Leiter House, and the Specklin House embody Dombar’s grasp of the mid-century Modern ideal, while remaining true to his foundations in organic architecture. (Modernnati has more examples of Ben Dombar’s work.) However, his own personal house was a celebration and an experiment in the values that Frank Lloyd Wright instilled in him during his apprenticeship.
When I first set eyes on the Dombar House and Studio and walked through the threshold, I didn’t yet know the history of the house, or of Ben Dombar, but I knew there was something amazingly special about this house. Upon deciding to pursue purchasing and rehabbing the house, I did what any good architectural historian and preservationist would do: I researched everything I could about Ben, his work and the house. I quickly discovered how important the house was to the Dombar legacy, and also to the community. The house embodied Dombar’s creativity, his devotion to his education under Wright, his inventive spirit, and his dedication to making his buildings functionally beautiful. While just looking at the house, I knew that it was architecturally unique, once the history behind the house was revealed to me, I also knew that the entirety of the house needed to be celebrated and honored.
The National Register of Historic Places was largely created for this exact purpose. The National Register is the nation’s official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation. It was authorized under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect our historic and archeological resources.
I knew as soon as I began planning for the rehabilitation of the property, that I would want to list this on the National Register of Historic Places and wanted to do as sympathetic of a rehabilitation as possible to maintain the integrity of the building, in order to help facilitate this listing.
The rehabilitation was completed in early 2018, the year the building turned 50 years old and could finally qualify for the designation. (You can see some interior photos in a story about the home in Cincinnati Magazine.) I started the process by sending in a National Register Questionnaire, a 2-page form that asks some basic and preliminary questions about the building to vet its potential eligibility for listing, to the Ohio History Connection, the State of Ohio’s Historic Preservation Office, to get a determination on the potential eligibility of the house.
After the review and confirmation that the Benjamin Dombar House and Studio was eligible, I began my deep dive into research. Using the National Register Bulletins and examples of other recently nominated modern era buildings, I built a framework for discussing and analyzing the history and significance of the house.
As each nomination is tailored to the history and significance of the individual building, each nomination needs to be tailored to the topics that support the significance of the building. For the Benjamin Dombar House and Studio, that included writing a detailed architectural description of the house, the history of the development of the Organic Architectural style and the style specifically in Cincinnati, as well as a discussion of Benjamin Dombar, his practice and specifically how this house fits into the context of the Organic Style and his overall practice.
As this was a personal project, I worked on it over weekends and evenings outside of my job as a historic preservationist. It took me about 3 months to fully research and write the nomination. Once I had the nomination submitted to the SHPO, it took approximately a year for it to go through the process to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
There is no fee to submit the nomination, but costs that may be incurred would be to contract with a consultant to write the nomination, as well as mapping and photography. These fees can vary depending on the site size, number of resources (buildings, structures, objects, etc.), the available research existing on the house and topics of significance, and location.
For example, with the Benjamin Dombar House and Studio, one of the main elements of significance were its association with Ben Dombar and its unique organic architecture. As there are no other organic architecture buildings listed in Cincinnati and no other Ben Dombar Houses listed in the National Register of Historic Places to reference, I was tasked with researching and writing the context and history of both of those topics to provide a basis to evaluate the significance.
This burden of research would not be required for someone who owns a house by Samuel Hannaford, for example, as his practice has been well studied and documented within the National Register, so a new nomination for a building designed by Samuel Hannaford would have the privilege of using the extant research for a justification of significance.
As the Benjamin Dombar House and Studio nomination involved a building in a style that is not common and by an architect whose work is just coming of age for eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places, the need for a greater basis of justification, research and documentation made the nomination open for more detailed evaluation. Luckily, as there had been very few alterations to the property except for some interior material changes, and the floor plans had remained unchanged, the property retained the high level of architectural and material integrity that is often needed for a building being nominated under the “architecture” category. Again, as each nomination focuses on the specifics of why that property or district is significant, the level of integrity is evaluated with a balance of other considerations, including its history, sense of place, and rarity.
As a professional Historic Preservationist, my life has been about saving and honoring historic buildings. With this particular building, I was able to save it from vacancy and foreclosure, and to rehabilitate and restore it to the intentions and designs of the architect and homeowner, Ben Dombar. While this building doesn’t have any local protections or designation on it, being able to list it in the National Register was a step I could take to recognize and celebrate the history of the building and its architect once it was saved from the immediate threat that vacancy and foreclosure had put on the house.
As this was also the first building by Ben Dombar to be listed, this specific nomination also helps to provide a basis and context for other Ben Dombar-designed buildings to be apply to be listed. Another important aspect of the property being listed is its protection, and the consideration of any future projects or expansions of the transportation network that surrounds this property. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires that, anytime Federal funds are used, that the effect of historic resources is taken into account, and that there should be an attempt to avoid adverse impacts on those historic resources. As the Ben Dombar House and Studio is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the building has been established to be historic. This review is referred to as the Section 106 review process.
The documentation, celebration, recognition and protection through the Section 106 process are all important aspects and reasons to list a property in the National Register of Historic Places. However, through this whole process, I have realized that perhaps the most important reason has been the greater appreciation, pride and connection with my house and with the work of Ben Dombar that has rooted me in calling this house my home.
Beth Johnson is the incoming Executive Director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association. Read more about her appointment here.