Mental health center to expand into historic Castle Tea Room building

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

The Castle Tea Room, 1307 Massachusetts St., is shown in this March 2020 photo.

A Lawrence landmark is now on a firmer financial foundation than it has been in years.

You may remember that in March we reported the United Way of Douglas County had reached a deal to move its offices into a portion of the historic Castle Tea Room building near 13th and Massachusetts streets.

Well, the nonprofit now will have company. A deal has been struck for a growing, Lawrence-based mental health treatment center to occupy the rest of the space in the 1894 structure that is one of the most distinctive buildings in town.

“I’ve always liked the idea of a clinical office not feeling so clinical, so this is going to be great,” said Juliet Nelson, co-owner and team leader of the DBT Center of Lawrence.

DBT Center has signed a lease to occupy the entire 1,700 square feet of the building’s first floor, which really is designed like a castle and features a maze of rooms adorned with intricate woodwork.

The deal with the DBT Center is a bit of a milestone for the Castle. As we reported in April 2019, the nonprofit that owns the Castle building had fallen into disarray. A Douglas County judge appointed longtime local banker and attorney Wint Winter Jr. to serve as a financial custodian for the building. He set out to find tenants for the building to pay for its upkeep and to ensure the building — which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — wouldn’t have to be sold to a private party.

The DBT Center deal, in addition to the United Way lease, means the building now will be fully leased, which has greatly improved the finances of the property.

“We are excited,” Winter told me. “This is going to breathe new life into the building. With these two leases, the projections show that for the first time in many years, the Castle Tea Room Foundation will show a small financial surplus.”

Winter said he planned to soon ask the Douglas County District Court to end his role as financial custodian and allow a new board to take over management of the property.

As for the DBT Center, Nelson said the practice was pleased to have more room. The group is adding another licensed clinician to provide therapy services. The practice, which formed in 2018 when several therapists left the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, now will have seven full-time licensed clinicians. In addition, the practice is adding to its employee ranks three students training to be therapists.

The center will house three clinicians at the Castle building, while the other four will be based in the center’s existing office at 1311 Wakarusa Drive in west Lawrence.

The center has been growing since its founding, when several clinicians left Bert Nash to create a business that was focused on providing dialectical behavior therapy, which is a specific style of therapy used to help people with a variety of conditions.

Some of the more severe conditions can be anxiety and mood disorders and other types of disorders that can lead to destructive or dangerous actions. The DBT-style of therapy involves both individual and group therapy. The Castle building was particularly appealing because it has a large dining room that will work well for group therapy, Nelson said.

“My dream had been to buy a house to practice out of, but the zoning laws make that kind of difficult,” Nelson said.

From that standpoint, the Castle was a great fit, she said. She expects the practice to be moved into the space by mid-August, although it is unclear when the location will start hosting clients. Currently the practice is seeing patients remotely because of the pandemic. The DBT Center deal also needs one more set of approvals from Lawrence City Hall before the group can move in. The building’s special use permit has to be modified to allow for a health care office, but Winter said he thought that approval would happen later this month.

Winter said he was pleased with the interest the building drew from prospective tenants.

“It obviously is one of a kind,” Winter said. “You can’t find a building in Lawrence on the national register that has this type of visibility and the branding that the tea room has had.”

Indeed, the tea room is well known by Lawrence residents of a certain generation. Libby Kriz-Fiorito used the building to house a business serving tea and fine food for decades, prior to her death in 2004.

Winter said some work was underway to change the branding of the building a bit to de-emphasize the tea room aspect, since the location no longer is in the food and beverage business.

A new sign will be going in front of the property that highlights Gen. John Roberts, who had the home built in the 1890s. The sign will brand the property as the Gen. John Roberts Castle and highlight its listing on the national register. Roberts was a Civil War veteran of Scottish descent who evidently always wanted a castle. (I, too, have always wanted a castle, but the most I’ve ever gotten is a moat without a draw bridge.)

Roberts could actually afford a castle thanks to a successful manufacturing business. I’ve long heard he made his fortune making berry baskets, but that may only be part of it. I recently read a piece about him from longtime Douglas County historian Steve Jansen. Jansen is writing a new monthly history column for the Journal-World. The first one is online now and is in the Wednesday Crave section of the print edition. It is not about the Castle, but a future column that he already has submitted will be.

Keep an eye out for that, along with moats without bridges.


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