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The Balcony House offers a small town oasis in time
By Phil Soreide
Sometimes you need to just get away together. You aren’t looking for glitter and flash, you’re looking for snuggle and cuddle; you don’t need a floor show, you’ve got each other and a book. What you’re really seeking is an oasis in time; a place to just “be” for awhile and let your batteries recharge.
My wife and I had that impulse recently, as we sometimes do, and on the recommendation of a friend booked a room at the Balcony House in Imperial, just a few miles from the Colorado border in southwestern Nebraska. On these trips, we make it a point to leave the laptop and as many niggling worries as we can at home and to be very circumspect about which cell phone calls we actually answer. We like to leave early and go slow, stopping at every historic marker we come to and taking frequent snack breaks. On this particular trip, we stopped for coffee at the Take Five in Arapahoe, had a biscotti at Shirley K’s in Cambridge, and had a stroll on “the bricks” and a leisurely lunch at the Bieroc Café in McCook, covering a little over 100 miles in the space of about four hours.
After lunch we poked along Highway 6, stopping at Enders Reservoir to pitch rocks and look for birds, and then took a detour to Champion, where Nebraska’s last functional water mill still grinds whole grain into flour for baking. Sadly for us, Champion Mill State Historical Park it wasn’t open to visitors when we arrived, but we did get to wander the grounds and admire its beautiful setting, and really, that was enough.
A rich history in Chase County.
We arrived at the Balcony House in mid-afternoon, and, following the instructions, used the phone on the counter in the kitchen to call owner Jim Pirog who arrived moments later to check us in and show us our room.
Jim told us the Balcony House was originally built as a school in Chase County, then decommissioned and sold when the “new” high school was built in the 1920s. (It’s not easy to see the school part of its history, although the sturdy double-doors at the entry are a clue.) The new owner moved the structure to its present location across from the County Courthouse and added the eponymous balcony running around three sides.
For many years thereafter, Priog said, the building, along with 22 adjacent cabins, operated as the Balcony House Tourist Camp – a popular stop along Highway 6 which spanned the country coast to coast. In later years it became a boarding house and gradually fell into disrepair. When Jim and his wife Linda purchased the property in 1997, it had been vacant for a number of years.
A project for the whole family.
“One thing I learned from this experience,” Pirog said, “is the truth of that statement about things taking twice as long and costing twice as much as you think they will.”
When they decided to buy the Balcony House, Jim was a successful real estate broker in Denver, while Linda was a social worker for the state. Their two kids were in third and seventh grade. Renovation of the property took 20 months of hard work with the help of family, friends and local contractors.
“We did as much as we could ourselves – tear-out, insulation, drywall, trim, hang doors, paint. A buddy helped me do the cabinets and counters in the kitchen. But we had professionals to do things like the coffered ceiling in the dining room,” he said.
The Balcony House has five suites, ranging in price from $75 to $115 per night. Each one is unique; it’s own little environment. Some make use of the former balcony as a step-down private galleria, with a view of the treetops. Our room, the Romantic Retreat, was big enough to feature a table and chairs, a king-sized bed, a Jacuzzi built for two, and a couch before a gas fireplace, in addition to a commodious private bath. A lot more romantic than the best we could have gotten at the Holiday Inn.
Down the hall we found the balcony had been made into a delightful sun porch where we whiled away a good couple of hours reading our books and listening to the breeze in the trees.
Pirog says he often gets couples like us, on a weekend get-away, but they also serve hunters and business travelers as well as regulars such as visiting medical specialists and one truck driver who spends every Sunday night at the Balcony House.
A gourmet breakfast.
As a business, Pirog says the Balcony House “pays its way and then some”, covering its mortgage and expenses and returning a steady income. Both Jim and Linda have day jobs in town and Jim said it would take a “bigger inn” to be totally self-sufficient.
He says their kids, Matt, 22 and a recent UNO grad in accounting, and Erica, 18, a freshman at UNL in sports exercise, benefited from the education they got in Imperial.
“They got a great, well-rounded education,” Jim said. “They could be involved in any activity without being the best of the best.” Jim said despite being rural, the school is very progressive, even issuing laptop computers to students.
“It was a lot of work, but we never regretted moving to Imperial,” Jim said. “In Denver, we just knew the people we worked with and the neighbors on our cul de sac. Here it seems like we know everybody.”
In the morning after our stay, Linda delighted us with a thoroughly gourmet breakfast of cream-cheese stuffed French toast, fresh fruit and all the trimmings – one that makes those “Continental” breakfasts at the chain motels look pretty pale by comparison.
If “getaway” means bright lights, big city to you, go for it. But if it means peaceful comfort and relaxation combined with a bit of old fashioned pampering, it would be hard to do better than the Balcony House.