Always a Castle… Not Always a Tea Room…

The story of two immigrant families is tightly woven into the fabric of the elegant, Victorian Romanesque revival home standing at 1307 Massachusetts Street, known locally as the “Castle” or the Castle Tea Room. John N. Roberts, who would build the Castle, descends from a Scottish family who immigrated to America in the 1600s. The second family emigrated from Czechoslovakia around the turn of the century. Their offspring, Libuse “Libby” Kriz-Fiorito, would save the Castle and make it a social landmark for Lawrence and preserve it for posterity.

In 1869, Civil War veteran  John N. Roberts, and his wife Emily moved from Ohio to Kansas to establish their business and family in Lawrence. The Roberts had one daughter, Isabel, affectionately named Belle. They built a new life for themselves, becoming prominent members of the Lawrence community. Roberts built his fortune designing and manufacturing containers and distinguished himself in business, real estate, politics, and leadership. His honorific title as “General” stems from his service as adjutant general of the Kansas National Guard.

Befitting their wealth and prominence in the community, the Roberts completed the construction of their new home, known as the “Castle” in 1894. They moved from their somewhat modest wood frame house into a new cut stone mansion deemed to be “one of the largest and most beautiful homes in the city,” by newspaper reporters. The architecture and fine stone work, as well as its tower, hearkens back to the castles of Scotland.

We can only speculate as to why the Roberts family chose this particular design, but we do know General Roberts was insistent on hiring noted Lawrence architect John G. Haskell to design the structure and Joel Gustafson to act as master stone mason. A young Englishman, Sidney Endacott, who was visiting his brother in Lawrence for the summer, was hired by General Roberts to do the extensive wood carvings in the home which included the mantles of all five fireplaces and the breakfront in the dining room. Endacott, who returned to England after his work on the Castle, would go on to become a noted British watercolor artist. The name of the artisan who created the magnificent stained glass window for the Castle stairwell has, unfortunately, been lost to time.

The General’s wife, Emily “Emma” Sutliff Roberts played an important role in the creation of the Castle. Emma had some wealth in her own right, and purchased the property on which the Castle stands. A former music student, she had an organ installed on the second floor hallway of their grand home. The Roberts daughter, Isabel, a member of the Pi Beta Phi sorority loved to have dances and host sorority parties in the third floor ballroom. Local musicians frequently played for these dances where the society columns of the day reported that “all had a marvelous time.” The Roberts frequently traveled around the country and maintained close ties with their families in Ohio. Isabel was married twice in the Castle. She first married H.L. Armstrong of Topeka in the front living room, and later, Mr. Mark Otis of Chicago in the library.

In 1919 the Roberts decided to sell their home and move to San Diego upon the death of Isabel’s second husband who succumbed to the wartime flu epidemic of 1918. The local newspaper noted the Roberts family “will be greatly missed in the community.”

Mr. J. J. Simmonds, owner of the Lawrence Brick Yard, bought the Castle from General Roberts in 1919. Simmonds built the driveway and “castle-like” garage between 1926 and 1927. The Simmonds had four sons and a young daughter, so we can imagine what a busy home it was during their tenure. Sadly, Simmonds fell on hard times as a result of the Great Depression and lost the home. It was repossessed in 1934 and sold to the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation for $11,439.45.

Still covered in vines planted at the turn of the century, the Castle awaited its next occupant. The mortgage company apparently rented the home as a boarding house while awaiting a buyer. Finally, in 1943 The Assembly of God church bought the home to disassemble it and use the stone to build their church. Fortunately for the Lawrence community, the plans never came to fruition and in 1947 the church sold the building to a surprising new owner. A new chapter in the history of the Castle was about to begin.

Libby Kriz-Fiorito the daughter of Czechoslovakian emigrants, was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1916. She was an accomplished, independent and intelligent woman, attending the Illinois Institute of Technology in the 1930s where she became a dietitian. Libby was very proud of her heritage and frequently referred to herself as a “Bohemian.” After graduation, she moved to Lawrence to become a dietitian at the University of Kansas. Libby was known to many as “Miss Kriz.” She was a wonderful mixture of Victorian sensibilities and Twentieth Century independence.

In 1947, Libby and a friend decided to open a restaurant and purchased the house, renaming it the “Castle Tea Room.” Within days, Libby’s partner was sadly diagnosed with a terminal illness and Libby became sole proprietor of the Castle Tea Room. For more than half a century she oversaw countless weddings, showers, community meetings, engagement parties and people just hungry for a good meal.

As Libby moved into the last decade of her life, she was determined this magnificent old home would continue to be available for memorable moments in peoples lives. An astute business woman, she established a not for profit foundation to continue her legacy and that of the Castle. The Libuse Kriz-Fiorito Historical Foundation has assumed its responsibility to enact Libby’s will and is committed to three primary goals:

  • To maintain the physical structure of the Castle for future generations.
  • To preserve and promote the Castle’s unique history and heritage.
  • To maintain access to the Castle for the public’s use, enjoyment and education.

As the 21st Century unfolds, the Castle moves into a new chapter in its history. In May 2009, the Castle underwent an extensive restoration and renovation, then the foundation reopened the Castle Tea Room, which is available by reservation to host those special events for which it is so well known.