A Slice of Life on the Nebraska Plains
I am just back from opening up the old library, my place in Burwell, Nebraska, for the summer. The original, massive windows, split-level floors, and high ceilings are still as grand as I remember when I used it as a public library as a child, and have all aged gracefully. I became the owner of the building in 2006, after the expansive cubic volume became too costly to heat and cool, the stairs too many, and the windows in need of too many complicated upgrades for the city to keep using it as a public space. Since then, it has slowly transformed into a vacation home, writer’s retreat and muse for this blog. Today, you won’t find any more 1970′s-era drop ceiling covering up beautiful tin, and the amount of 1960′s mint green paint and complimentary dark carpet has dropped to a minimum in favor of fresh white walls and restored, deep-hued fir floors.
Like anything you love, you overlook its flaws. Downstairs, the old children’s library is still mint green but is now a dorm-style room that sleeps six. Two more fit in a full bedroom that was once the head librarian’s office. We used to call the original washroom a “truck stop bathroom” before it was fixed up. There’s an additional full bathroom now, making downstairs functional and utility-driven, but also why there are no pictures of it, and why we spend most of our time upstairs in the main room. Upstairs, by the way, is sunnier and not mint green anywhere. Besides, all the books, puzzles, games and food are there, making the choice obvious.
80 years of use as a place of learning has given the old library a vibe of quiet concentration. The original shelves left inside by the town now hold mostly cookbooks from my own collection. I designed and had the kitchen built when I lived in New York. Its purpose is to be the activity hub of the main floor. I couldn’t bear to section off the top floor into rooms, because at the time, and even now in Los Angeles, looking across 1,200 uninterrupted square feet in a dwelling feels like winning the house lottery.
What it actually costs to fix and maintain, the old library returns in quiet comfort and quirks that give it character. It is a space that gives every dinner, every weekend on the lake, and every party a value greater than the sum of its parts. I have an odd list of people to thank for making the space what it is; the Burwell Women’s Book Club in 1912 for lobbying a wealthy philanthropist to build a public library, Andrew Carnegie for being that man and funding it, the town of Burwell for keeping it in such good shape while in its care, and endless friends and family who have put their own time and effort into helping fix or tidy the place that is now in my charge.
I do, on occasion, rent it to the right people at the right time for the right project. It’s a great place to spend a long weekend on nearby Calamus lake, or to spread out for a couple of weeks to make a dent in a large project. I miss it when I’m not there, and I live vicariously through the friends and family who use it when I cannot.