The Joslyn Castle and Gardens stands as a testament to the vision and philanthropy of George and Sarah Joslyn. Built-in 1903, the Joslyn Castle serves as a living monument to the values of its original owners, and today, a dedicated group of individuals works tirelessly to preserve its legacy and share it with future generations.

Among these individuals is Kelli Bello, Director of Development and Outreach, whose journey with the Joslyn Castle began with her deep admiration for Sarah Joslyn.

“Sarah Joslyn worked tirelessly to make Omaha an incredible place to live, and I feel that everyday living here,” Bello says with a smile. “My love story with Omaha began through learning about this family, their art, their music, their philanthropy, and what they offered to everyone in Omaha.”

Amongst many architectural marvels, the castle’s interior boasts exotic woods sourced from different five continents, including Spanish Mahogany from Cuba, Satinwood from Southeast Asia, and Circassian Walnut from the Republic of Georgia, showcasing international procurement efforts that were unprecedented at the time.

“Like many of the woods in the castle, these woods are commercially extinct,” Bello explains. “If they were to be damaged or destroyed, that’s a pretty existential threat to us.”

Ensuring the castle’s stability is paramount to its role as a community asset, and in every restoration project at the Joslyn Castle, preserving as much original material as possible is a guiding principle.

For example, in 2019, the music room underwent renovations due to questionable integrity in the original floor. The renovated floor now incorporates salvaged quarter sawn maple floorboards, showcasing their unique marbling patterns. Modern floorboards were used where salvaging original ones wasn’t possible, but they lack the marbling and are shorter due to the unavailability of old growth planks. This contrast serves as a visual testament to the passion and dedication of the team at the Joslyn Castle, along with the Joslyn Castle Guild, consisting of around 100 volunteers who play vital roles in raising funds for maintaining the castle’s historical integrity.

Preservation efforts at Joslyn Castle extend to decorative features such as the Scottish-inspired wallpaper, adorned with a Scottish thistle motif. When Omaha Public Schools occupied the castle from 1944 to 1989, much of the original wallpaper was painted over with institutional white. However, ongoing restoration efforts have revealed the original wallpaper designer—a family-owned firm based in New York that still operates today. With access to the original plates, exact replicas of the wallpaper have been created, evoking the same sense of wonder and awe experienced by guests in the early 1900s.

The Joslyn Castle and Gardens also strives to share the preservation knowledge they’ve acquired with others in the old home community, fostering mutual learning and collaboration. Initiatives such as the “This Old Castle” historic preservation lecture series and partnerships with local business owners and organizations

like History Nebraska and Preserve Omaha provide platforms for exchanging expertise and experiences.

However, this commitment to preservation extends beyond the physical aspects of the castle. It encompasses a broader mission to uphold the legacy of its first owners, George and Sarah Joslyn.

“They have that classic story of $7 in my pocket and a sparkle in my eye,” Bello beams. They built an empire in the up-and-coming city of Omaha, “and the coolest part of their story is that they gave it all away.”

The Joslyn’s commitment to reinvest their wealth within the community of Omaha underscored their shared philosophy that great wealth carries a significant obligation to benefit society.

The establishment of several of Omaha’s beloved cultural landmarks, such as the Joslyn

Art Museum and the Omaha Community Playhouse, can be attributed to the Joslyn family. They also offered initial funding for what is now University of Nebraska-Omaha, supported organizations like the Humane Society and Fontenelle Forest, and contributed to projects in Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Together, George and Sarah Joslyn believed in the importance of providing equal opportunities for all members of the community, regardless of social status—a legacy upheld by the Joslyn Castle and Gardens to this day.

When Sarah Joslyn passed away in 1940, she did not endow the house. Instead, she willed that the home would go to serve a greater civic purpose.

“A huge misconception is that we are endowed by Joslyn money,” Bello explains. “We are not. We must raise every single dollar of our operating budget, which is over one million dollars each year.”

To achieve this, the castle utilizes various strategies such as offering programming, memberships, and rentals, as well as housing tenants on-site. Additionally, the castle actively applies for grants. However, it is the continuous support and engagement from the community that truly sustains the castle and allows it to thrive.

Kelli Bello recounts instances of watching pedestrians approach the castle’s gates. She’s witnessed people take a quick picture and sprint away as fast as they can, assuming they’re trespassing on private property. However, the reality is quite the opposite – the castle welcomes visitors. With 5.75 acres of public green space, individuals are encouraged to enjoy activities such as walking their dogs, picnicking, or attending free festivals and classes.

“We want you here,” Bello proclaims. “The castle is a part of your story and your history. If we were to be private and exclusive, this place wouldn’t survive. We need community buy-in—that’s the life force of this place.”

To demystify the castle, make it more accessible, and generate funding for ongoing restoration projects, Bello collaborates with local organizations to host a variety of free and ticketed programs and events. These include Shakespeare performances and yoga sessions on the lawn, a childhood literacy series with the Omaha Public Library, summer concerts and festivals, and a brand-new Folk Music series hosted monthly in the carriage house.

Recent partnerships and designations, notably the recognition of the castle and three partner organizations as a Creative District by the Nebraska Arts Council, significantly enhance community engagement endeavors.

Through district-wide events like art walks, literary festivals, and public art projects led by resident artist Watie White, this designation will breathe new life into the Joslyn Castle neighborhood.

Bello and her team are committed to establishing the Joslyn Castle and Gardens as a vibrant “third place” within Omaha. They embrace the concept of offering a space beyond home and work where the community can gather, pursue interests, and forge connections. By fostering a sense of excitement and community, they aim to attract regular attendees, members, and volunteers, inspiring all to participate in preservation and programming efforts.

“We all see the castle through the lens of the future,” Bello states with pride. “There’s nothing like working to uplift your hero’s legacy, tell her story, and share her dream for this house. We’re all very passionate people and getting to work here, making history feel cool and alive, it’s my greatest challenge and my greatest joy.”