Local History: A few stories of the Castle Tea Room and its number-loving parrot
photo by: John Young
It was interesting recently to read that the local United Way organization, seeking to raise its profile, chose to move into an architectural landmark on Massachusetts Street. Located just south of South Park on the west side, the Castle Tea Room is certainly a notable and attractive building that has had a high profile since its beginning.
J. Earle Endacott (brother of Paul for whom the Endacott Society at KU is named), in a reminiscence titled “The Lawrence We Remember,” tells us: “One of the most unusual homes was the J.N. Roberts house located at the corner of Massachusetts & Lee or now 15th Street. It was a three story white stone from Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. Mr. Roberts had been an officer in the Civil War and had invented a wooden tray widely used in meat markets and had made a fortune from his idea. He came to Lawrence with his wife and daughter and they kept much to themselves.
“He decided to build his home of 15 rooms each with a different wood and all hand carved, plus with staircases and fireplaces all over the home. My Uncle Sidney Endacott (1873-1918) had come to Lawrence from England as a lad of 20 and Mr. Roberts found out he was an artist and wood carver so hired him to do the carving. It took almost two years with each room in different woods. It still stands and is now called the Castle Tea Room and the original carving still is a show place. My Uncle Sid didn’t like it here so went back to England where he became quite famous and his works command very high prices even today.”
In “John G. Haskell,” John M. Peterson (1921-2007) provides more details about this Lawrence landmark. Peterson writes: “In 1893, after his job as state architect ended, Haskell was the chief designer of an imposing residence for one of the leading businessmen of Lawrence. General John Newton Roberts, who survived many Civil War battles as an officer in the 6th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry but whose title reflected his services as Adjutant-General of Kansas, had lived in Lawrence for about thirty years when he and his wife decided to replace their frame dwelling with something more befitting their financial status. “The Roberts house has been called the best-known example of Richardsonian Romanesque in a private home in Kansas. It was built of Cottonwood stone and laid in rock-face ashlar. There were three stories above a basement. A large square tower with beveled corners formed the northwest section of the house. The main entrance was on the east under a porch topped by a stone railing and supported by heavy columns with Corinthian capitals. Decorative trim of cut and carved stone was used quite freely but was restrained in style. On the inside the trim, paneling, stairs, and mantels were fashioned from many varieties of wood, including cherry, curly birch, walnut and sycamore … The ballroom was on the third floor (and) featured window seats and stained glass. The large chimneys provided outlets for five fireplaces on the first floor and four on the second.”
Two anecdotes that I remember about this structure and its construction are as follows. Blanche Holloway Phillips, daughter of a Lawrence neighborhood grocer, told me that Roberts had a parrot that lived with him and his family in the frame residence while the stone house was being built. The parrot had an interesting hobby, it seemed. The parrot, at Roberts’ prompting, told him over and over how much money the new home was costing him.
The second story is about Sidney Endacott, the wood carver for the home. After spending over two years on the Roberts home, he made a decision upon returning back to Exeter, England. From there on out, he would only do miniature projects, with most being no larger than postcards.
Local history is a monthly column in the Journal-World. Steve Jansen has been a resident of Lawrence since 1974. He was an employee of the Watkins Museum of History from 1977 to 2002; notably the director from 1979 to 2001. He received his Ph.D in History from the University of Kansas in 1985. He edited the Pictorial History of Lawrence Douglas County Kansas in 1992.