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Omaha Magazine

A Secret Hidden in Little Italy

Dec 22, 2023 11:54AM ● By Chris Wolfgang
at home ARTIST CHRISTINA NARWICZ’S SOUTH O ABODE home january february 2024

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Artist Christina Narwicz's South O adobe [9 Images] Click Any Image To Expand
"This is the other Little Italy,” observed Christina Narwicz. “There's the Orsi's bakery neighborhood, which everyone considers Little Italy, right? And then there's the Rotella's neighborhood. Here.”

She calls it an enclave of a neighborhood, from Leavenworth to the Quartermaster Depot, and 24th Street to 16th. “It’s a very working-class neighborhood now,” Narwicz said. “Families are here. There're kids in the neighborhood now. I think there's a resurgence, and I love it. This was a pretty dodgy neighborhood when I moved in.”

So…what drew Narwicz to a 1927 brick storefront with a pot garden in the basement and a foundation cobbled together from actual garbage?

“Desperation,” she said flatly. An artist who grew up in Long Island, lived a couple years in London, and spent a decade on a sailboat in the Caribbean, Narwicz was going through another drastic life change in the `90s. “I was living on 13th Street in what’s now called The Bohemian Gardens. I had a major health issue, and basically, my whole life fell apart. Including selling that property. But hey, I’m still alive.”

A neighbor on 13th Street told her about an angled storefront they knew of that was being used for antique storage. “I bought it via land contract, for sale by owner,” Narwicz recalled, “because I had nothing.” It was the first time she’d ever owned anything by herself. “At 42 years old. That was a big deal for me, that autonomy.”

Built by an Italian couple in the late 1920s, the building originally housed a barber shop on one side and some larger enterprise on the other, perhaps a bar or mercantile. “But there aren't any ghosts here,” Narwicz promised. “I was hoping there might be, but there aren’t.”

What her home lacks in ghosts, it makes up for with other mystique. “That winding road out there that turns into 19th,” Narwicz said, pointing out one of her huge living room windows, “everybody calls it Rum Runners Road.” Tunnels, she explains, lead from her basement to other buildings—some now vacant lots—on the corner. “MUD found it when they were redoing the streets.” 

 The 400-square-foot barber shop now serves as Narwicz’s kitchen and dining room, and the larger space with the shop windows and angled entrance is an open living room and office. Two bedrooms and a bath, complete with claw-foot tub, are tucked in the back. “It needed all new everything,” Narwicz said. “Every time I sold a painting, I would do some improvement. Sell a painting, and you know, get some wiring done.”

Today, the space is a chic artist’s bungalow combining European minimalism with Caribbean maximalism, but Narwicz still maintains her little-at-a-time approach to renovation. All of the building’s external brick has just been repointed, and the exterior trim is freshly painted a Southwestern teal. Narwicz plans to tile around the angled front door and recently added electricity for a pair of porch sconces.

Given the understated yellow brick outside, the interior is unexpected. “I call this ceiling the wedding cake,” Narwicz said, smiling up at the white-painted tin ceiling and elaborate crown molding. Large contemporary brass cage light fixtures hang next to messy original brick work, keeping the vibe eclectic. Tin around the front door is about three-quarters painted a dark navy. “I was painting it blue, and then decided I didn't want it to be.” It looks fabulous, of course.

Little of the art on display is made by Narcwicz. “All of these paintings are like a history of my friends. And I have a lot of my mother's paintings. She was a master watercolorist, and she did that when she wasn't raising five kids and working as a nurse. This little bust here, she did of me as a baby. When my chubby cheeks were up here,” she said with a gesture.

When it comes to making a century-old nonresidential building livable, thinking outside the box is essential. Exposed conduit runs along the ceiling to avoid the expense of opening up the tin. To avoid losing six inches of living space, the kitchen is insulated on the outside—insulation fills a six-inch cavity built onto the external stucco and covered with galvanized steel. “It's been pretty effective,” Narwicz said.

The steps down from the living room into the kitchen are salvaged pine timber. The wallpaper, however, is new, from Cole & Son in England: “It’s incredibly expensive, and I don’t care.” A thin piece of marble surrounded by butcher block serves as a countertop. “This was in Mrs. B’s kitchen,” Narwicz points out, referencing famed Nebraska Furniture Mart founder Rose Blumkin. “It’s great if you love baking and doing pastries.” She glances at a still-life painting on the kitchen wall. “You know, my mom did this one the year I was born. 1962.”

Narwicz creates her own art in a studio she built five years ago with DeOld Andersen Architecture on the empty lot next door. “My house is nothing special, but the studio is always more interesting because things are happening there.” 

 Between the house and the studio sits a private courtyard, a miniature version of the garden she designed on 13th Street. A small grove of birch trees is a reminder of her childhood home on Long Island, and hyacinth beans climb up a trellis next to cardinal flowers. At peak growing season, Japanese maples rub shoulders with giant lilies, hydrangeas, hostas, and a variety of herbs. A few sculptures from friends provide safe spaces for birds and a Buddha brought home from Myanmar. A fire pit holds down a conversational area on textured black concrete just outside the kitchen.

From the courtyard, the house’s original stucco displays years of mending. “I like the cracks. I like to see the map,” Narwicz said. “Other people are like, you have to paint that all white or make it look like a Southwest building or something. But that's the building. That's what it is.”

Steel stairs made by Wood Chaser ring musically as Narwicz walks from the garden down into the dugout studio. A huge window offers a wide view of the garden, as well as that soft north light artists love. Against a 24-foot-long paint-speckled wall, several large-scale paintings rest. One canvas is layered with Sanskrit and Einstein formulae.

“This is not separate from over there,” Narwicz said, gesturing across the garden to her home, “even though it's two different buildings. That is kind of like the repository for all the things I'm thinking about. All my books and my history and my sentimentality that we all love to surround ourselves with. And here—” she indicated her studio with a wave of a hand “—is where I disseminate it.” 

For more information about the artist and her work, visit christinanarwicz.com.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Omaha Home magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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