Sarah Joslyn's ghost may or may not walk the halls of her lively Omaha mansion, but her spirit lives on as leaders of the Joslyn Castle dream big — perhaps $20 million big.
That's the figure mentioned by Julie Reilly, the new executive director of the nonprofit Joslyn Castle Trust. Achieving it would take a lot of strategic planning and fundraising.
But it would continue the transformation of an Omaha architectural jewel that has become — under her predecessor, Nano Little — a fun public place for murder-mystery parties, style shows, wine tastings, theatrical and music productions, classic car shows and a lot more, including as many as 70 weddings a year.
“Nano brought grace and elegance to the place,” Julie said, “and connected it to the community in a way I don't think too many other people could have done.”
What about the ghost rumors?
“I knew you were going to bring that up,” Nano said. “Why don't you stick around for a while? Maybe you can decide.”
Far be it from me to spook anyone away from the amazing, 34-room Joslyn Castle at 39th and Davenport Streets in the old midtown neighborhood west of downtown. I'm no ghost-buster, especially in a 109-year-old building that emits occasional creepy, creaking sounds at night.
But some groups interested in the paranormal have spent nights at the castle. At least one group, Nano said, thought that the spirit present wasn't that of Sarah, but of her adopted daughter, Violet — who was married there as a young woman and lived to 90.
Ghosts or no ghosts, the old haunt of Sarah and husband George Joslyn appears to face a bright and hopeful future under the Joslyn Castle Trust. Julie Reilly's background, including a 1995-2009 stint as director of the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center in Omaha, makes her an apt choice to lead.
She grew up partly in Kabul, Afghanistan, where her father taught and also served as a civil engineer for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She earned a master's degree in anthropology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and has worked at the Smithsonian Institution, Colonial Williamsburg and the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.
For the past 2½ years she was development director at Kaneko, the “open space for your mind” creativity center in the Old Market.
Though the Joslyn Castle has benefited from many physical improvements in recent years, more are needed. Reilly, who started work on Aug. 27, said the trust's board will embark on a strategic plan, which may include creation of an endowment.
The three-story, turreted mansion, built in 1903 to resemble a Scottish castle, sits on 5.5 acres that are open to the public daily. Tours are given on the first and third Sunday afternoons each month, and the building is available for rental.
It wasn't always a public place. George Joslyn, who came to Omaha with his wife in 1880, made his fortune by owning the Western Newspaper Union, which provided print-ready ads and features to 7,500 newspapers.
The 1913 Easter tornado damaged the grounds, took out trees and destroyed greenhouses. George died in 1916, and Sarah donated millions in his memory for construction of the Joslyn Art Museum at 24th and Dodge Streets, which opened in 1931. She died in 1940.
From 1944 to 1989, the castle was home to administrative offices for the Omaha Public Schools. The ornate dining room, for example, served as the superintendent's office.
The state of Nebraska then owned it for two decades. In December 2010, the state sold the mansion to the nonprofit Joslyn Castle Trust for $1.4 million. The trust had to come up with only $100,000 because of a $1.3 million credit for capital improvements it had already made while managing the building.
With 19,300 square feet, the castle has a lot of room to roam. And in the years ahead, there are lots of things to do.
In the short term, Julie wants to clean out the basement, which has been used for storage. It once included George's billiards room and a single-lane bowling alley — the deteriorated remains of which are still visible.
The grand staircase, the curved mahogany and oak pocket doors, the music room and all the rest are remembrances of a wealthy Omaha couple a century ago. In a new century, the stone-exterior mansion is renewing its place in the community.
A person's home, it is said, is his castle. But the Joslyn Castle increasingly has become home to events for everyone.
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