Ben Dombar oversaw construction of this Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian, which has managed to survive structural issues and renovations to find new life.
By Lisa Murtha -May 3, 2019, link to original article.
Frank Lloyd Wright is perhaps best known for his most unusual and prestigious designs: Pennsylvania’s Fallingwater, Wisconsin’s SC Johnson Administration Building, and New York’s Guggenheim Museum, to name a few. But Wright had more civic-minded goals for his architecture as well, notably the creation of Usonia, “the descriptive word used by Mr. Wright to typify what he considered to be the ideal American architectural style,” per Wright’s 1959 obituary in The New York Times.
While Wright’s Usonian Automatic homes, like Amberley Village’s Tonkens House, were in theory designed simply enough that homeowners could help build them, Usonian houses in general were “meant for middle income people to be able to afford a fine piece of architecture,” says the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy’s John Waters, and had features like concrete floors with radiant heating, small bedrooms and kitchens (or “workspaces”), and a large, open main living space where families could spend time together—the “centerpiece,” says Waters, of his homes.
This 1956 Usonian came into being mainly because of Patricia Neils, whose parents, Freida and Henry J. Neils, had commissioned their own Wright house in Minnesota in 1949. As the story goes, the Neils asked Wright to design a home for their daughter when she married. Soon after, Patricia, a Ph.D. and expert in the art and archaeology of ancient Greece, married UC professor of classical art history Cedric Boulter. Written correspondence between Wright’s office and the Boulters, who purchased this Clifton lot, dates back to 1953. For context, that was the same year the 83-year-old Wright received the Gold Medal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and submitted his plans for New York’s Guggenheim Museum, whose construction would start just as the Boulter house was being built.
Given that the Guggenheim was “the biggest, most important commission Frank ever got,” says architect Chris Magee, it’s understandable that Wright tapped Taliesin alum Ben Dombar, a Cincinnati native who’d returned home to start his own architectural practice, to serve as his “right hand man” on the Boulter project, says Magee. “Ben finished this house for him and took care of it ever after. I’m sure there were interactions and I know they corresponded, [but] I don’t think Frank really oversaw any of the work done by Ben.”
It also makes sense that, per third owners Chuck Lohre and Janet Groeber, the plans Wright gave the Boulters were originally drawn for a California client and subsequently repurposed for this steeply sloping Clifton site. The architect’s fees for the Boulter house were $25,000, according to a 1957 letter from Wright to the couple, but the project went over budget by nearly 50 percent, says Lohre, and ended up costing $36,000—fueling a now-established legend that Usonian houses were, contrary to their intent, both costly and difficult to build.
The Boulters lived in the home until the 1980s; when Cedric Boulter passed away, Patricia sold the house to an English couple, David and Miriam Gosling (David had been recruited by UC’s DAAP; he allegedly took the job only because this house was for sale). What the Goslings didn’t know was that the house had developed major structural problems. Unaware that the inevitable forces of both water and earth were undermining the home’s foundation, and supposedly fueled by the desire to make the home more visible to the rest of the community, David unknowingly exacerbated the problem, says historic preservation consultant Ken Hughes, by removing all of the trees and shrubs the Boulters had originally planted in front of the home and replacing them with a lawn. This allowed passersby to see the house, but it also escalated the home’s shift downhill.
By the time the Goslings brought Hughes in (roughly 1997), “everything was catty-wampus or uneven” from so much structural shifting, he says, especially in a playroom addition and the main structure’s front terrace. The Goslings hired an engineering firm to rebuild the terrace and stabilize the home and had Hughes rebuild the addition and repair other parts of the house. They had a retaining wall and path installed along the backside of the house, so the land there would stop pressing against the home’s rear exterior wall, causing it to bow. They hired Dombar to enclose the carport, turning it into an office and small art gallery, says Hughes, and converted the playroom into a master bedroom with a full, albeit bare bones, bath. The Goslings also had the home placed on the National Historic Register, says Lohre, and granted an easement to the Cincinnati Preservation Association.
Lohre and Groeber bought the place at auction in 2003, after David Gosling passed away. The Lohres reforested the land in front of the house and installed a dirt walking path, designed by Cincinnati State students. Lohre refinished one of the massive front terrace doors himself and also took steps to make the home more energy efficient (pumping insulation into the concrete block, adding foam insulation to the roof). He and Groeber also updated the kitchen and master bath. After 15 years, the couple sold the home in February to businessman, art collector, and Louisville native Brook Smith, who offered $750,000 ($55,000 over list price), sight unseen, the day after the home went up for sale.
Smith intends to use the place as a retreat space for creatives, something he’s already done with a John Johansen structure he owns in New Albany, Indiana. Meantime, he says he has no plans to renovate the Boulter house, and is merely hoping to “freshen it up” and maintain it. But first, he says, “we have to live with it for a minute,” which is exactly how any Frank Lloyd Wright devotee would want it. “Some people will say: ‘When you move into these houses, don’t do anything for a year,’” says Waters. “Listen to the house and see what it tells you.”
Ahoy, Matey. Unlike the other two original, 98-square-foot bedrooms upstairs, Cedric’s 150-square-foot bedroom (he and Patricia had separate bedrooms) is the only one with an exterior balcony—a space Langsam describes as a “prow, zooming out almost like an airplane wing. It was a very original and exciting feature of the house.”
The balcony originally had an early version of an epoxy floor, says Hughes, which had devolved into “an ant terrarium” full of sand by the time he started work on the house; Hughes ended up replacing the failed epoxy with roofing-grade canvas, a period-appropriate substitution per the Conservancy, he says.
Going Up. Most Usonians were one story but this home had to be two-plus, with a basement, says Lohre, because of the lot’s steep hillside slope. Critics view the interior second floor balcony, which doubles as the hall outside its original bedrooms, with differing opinions. “I find it oppressive,” says Langsam, who notes that the “low balcony projecting so close to the window wall is terrifying [because] it’s so narrow.” But Waters thinks Wright’s design showcases the architect’s ability to “make small houses very impressive,” adding that, “in part, the balcony on the second floor is pulled back from the glass so you get a full, two-story glass wall with the opening to the second floor as well.”
Light It Up. Though this home is also composed of African and Philippine mahogany and Douglas fir, much of its structure is made from concrete block; that material choice likely kept building costs down, says Waters, who adds: “I suspect Wright wouldn’t have used it if he didn’t find it appealing aesthetically as well.”
The architect also incorporated substantial amounts of glass into the home’s facade. “The idea of the southeast-facing glass wall was a central, magic orientation for Wright,” says Waters. “You get a lot of morning light and less intense afternoon light”—an essentially “passive solar concept,” he notes.
Open Doors. Today, only two of the four pairs of wood-and-glass doors leading out to the terrace are operable, but their presence is still one of the home’s more striking features. “The wall of glass, before they had to put up the draperies, was dazzling,” says architectural historian Walter E. Langsam. “My impression was that wall looked kind of like a Greek temple. The vertical proportions of the openings and that fascia of those recessed squares and those small squares really was, and maybe still is, strikingly Hellenic looking.”
Great Room. Save for an Arden Riddle couch, purchased by third owners Lohre and Groeber, all of the furniture in this space, the essential heart of the home, is original; it’s a combination of built-in, custom-built, and store-bought pieces purchased from Wright’s signature line through Pogue’s. The radiant-heated concrete floor in this space has always been stained red, Wright’s signature color. Equally fascinating are the small tube lights wedged, per Wright’s specifications, between the great room’s ceiling beams; these “reflected in the windows” at night, says Langsam, blending with other lights from the cityscape beyond.
Peekaboo. Before the carport was converted into an interior room, the entryway at the home’s rear was a typically Wrightian, small and underwhelming space connected to a narrow hallway that opened up onto the expansive interior. “That is not something Frank thought up on his own,” says the Conservancy’s Waters, “though he certainly used it to excellent effect. It’s the opposite of the McMansion, where you go into this grand hall that nobody’s ever in and it’s all right there.” In this home’s case, the entry hall also shares space with its main staircase, which is suspended by metal rods from twin 4-foot-by-14-foot Douglas fir beams.
Space Age. Wright called kitchens “workspaces;” by any name, they were exceedingly small. “I think he saw the kitchen very much like he saw bedrooms and bathrooms,” says Waters: “It was a support space.” Waters also notes that the 1950s were “a transformation from a period where kitchens would have been very separate [and] people didn’t entertain in them.”
During their tenure, Lohre and Groeber had all of the kitchen cabinets rebuilt, installed new appliances, and relocated both the sink and stove, all within the original footprint. They also moved the Boulters’ dining table from the narrow space just outside the kitchen to the “new” dining room / former carport.
Dining In. This space originally served as the home’s carport but was converted to two interior rooms by the Goslings, who hired Dombar to design the project. The wall between the two spaces had a small hole in it so David Gosling’s model train could pass from room to room. In an effort to “connect all the phases of the house,” says Magee, Lohre and Groeber hired him fresh out of school at DAAP to open up the room and design a row of built-in wall cabinets where the train tracks had been. “I tried to make it as close as possible to what Frank would have done himself,” says Magee.