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Omaha Magazine

Making Music & Memories in Field Club: Craig & Mary Bircher’s Eastlake Home

Sep 30, 2020 12:16PM ● By Carrielle Sedersten
Mary Bircher in her yard

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When a harpist from Virginia and trumpeter from Kansas decided to take jobs in Omaha after graduating from college, they probably didn’t think they’d meet the person they were going to marry, or move here and never leave. Nonetheless, Mary and Craig Bircher have spent the last 40 years building a life together in Omaha.

The two met in 1981 as musicians with the Omaha Symphony. Craig was only in Omaha for a one-year position and once it was done, he moved to New York City. The bright lights of the Big Apple weren’t enough to keep him there, though, and love wooed him back. He and Mary wed later that year. The couple continue with the symphony to this day: Mary as the principal harp, and Craig as the associate principal trumpet. 

The Birchers always liked the idea of remodeling a house, so when they bought their Eastlake home in Field Club in 1982, it was just what they were looking for—a fixer-upper at the right price. The Eastlake style—named for English architect Charles L. Eastlake and featuring notched, angular, and carved ornamentation popular in the Victorian era—also fit their penchant for historical homes.

“It pretty much had all of the challenges that I wanted,” Craig said. “It had an outbuilding, a carriage house that I thought, ‘well, if we get the house done...’ I thought it would be about a 10-year project, but it was clearly not.”

Their home, built in 1892, sat empty for nearly a decade before they bought it, making them only the fifth owners in its 128-year existence.

“We were lucky,” Mary said. “It was never chopped up into apartments. No one ever painted the woodwork on the first floor except for the dining room.”

The couple didn’t move in right away. Craig and friend Greg Peterson, also a talented woodworker, spent close to a year remodeling the house after work. Starting with the second floor—so that the Birchers, their first child, Walter, and their nanny would have somewhere to sleep—they ripped out all the crumbling plaster on the walls and scraped old linoleum off the hardwood floors.

An additional bathroom on the second floor became the next priority; then, converting the open third floor into bedrooms.

“So little by little...and then we got the babysitter moved on the third floor, and we had our second child [Josie],” Mary said. With musicians’ schedules of evenings and weekends, having live-in nannies—many of whom were students—was ideal.

For as long as the Birchers have lived in their house, it’s been a port of call for traveling musicians from all over the country, as well as a rehearsal space for local musicians and a place where Craig and Mary teach music lessons. All the people they’ve met throughout the years have contributed to their house in some way, even if it’s a height marking on the kitchen wall with their name above it.   

Mary explained, “We had Creighton law students. We had all different people in all different stages. Harp students. He had trumpet students from UNO helping tear out plaster or hang drywall.” They hired professionals to do the finishing touches and things like electrical and plumbing, which was replaced nearly all throughout the house.

Anything the Birchers could do themselves, they did. Craig was able to fix the weight-and-pulley system in all the double-hung windows instead of replacing them. This was something he learned from his trumpet teacher, Armondo Ghitalla, when he spent a summer helping him remodel an 1840s home.

The two paisley-patterned chairs and the white couch that sit in their living room belonged to Ghitalla, who was principal trumpet with the Boston Symphony for many years. He left them to Craig in his will.

Community plays a big part in the Birchers’ lives, especially relating to their home.

“We’ve really developed a lot of great friendships with people that have helped us and that are really experts in their area,” Craig said. Like their neighbor, Matt Heebner, a landscape designer who helped them convert their front lawn into a pollinator garden after it started burning up during the summer. 

Using regional flowers like indigo Baptisia, colorful coneflowers, long-blooming yarrow, and star-shaped asters, as well as sumac shrubs and bluestem grasses to name a few, Heebner created a haven for bees and butterflies that’s visually stimulating and aesthetically beautiful.

“I rely on a cycle of color for my perennial selections—early, long, late/short, medium, and tall,” Heebner said. “This method is especially important for sustaining different stages of wildlife.”   

He went on: “The Birchers’ garden had the added element of a moderate slope adjacent to the sidewalk. I tried to accommodate for that with the heights of the plants and the view of the [Hanscom] park and surroundings.”

Heebner wasn’t their only Field Club neighbor who helped make their home into what it is today. When the Birchers bought their house, much of the stained glass was missing. Their neighbors tipped them off to the seller having the stained glass windows for the front door, and to a previous renter having the stained glass cupboard doors for the dining room built-ins. The Birchers were able to reach out to both parties and retrieve the stained glass pieces for the restoration.

Their neighbors also shared contacts to help them find Eastlake-style brass doorknobs and railings.

As long as the Birchers live in Omaha, they’ll remain on a never-ending scavenger hunt to find all the missing pieces to their home—such as an Eastlake-style fireplace mantle they found in Nashville five years ago that they’re still refinishing, or locks for all the pocket doors on their main level.

Like Mary said, “It’s a work in progress.”

Craig did eventually get around to remodeling the carriage house that he and Mary use as a music studio now, albeit long past the 10-year timeline he anticipated. But no worry, the work and the music go on. 

Visit bircherandbirchermusic.com for more information about Mary and Craig’s music careers.

This article was printed in the October 2020 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.