Henry Mercer, law student, professional traveler, archaeologist (Curator of American and Prehistoric Archaeology at the Penn Museum), artist, and chronicler of pre-industrial America was at the forefront of the American Arts & Crafts movement. At a time when machines were taking over industry, Mercer was worried about losing the skills and knowledge of individual craftsman. Three sites in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (about 20 miles north of Philadelphia), chronicle his life and his importance to the Arts & Crafts movement.
The Castle (Fonthill)
In 1910 Henry lit a bonfire on the roof of his just completed “castle for the new world,” Fonthill, not to destroy it, but to prove the superiority of concrete construction. Henry designed, built, and lived in this poured concrete building, enjoying its uniqueness and imperfections. Although you can’t tell from inside, half of the castle actually encases an old farmhouse, onsite when Mercer purchased the land. You can see evidence of its stone structure outside where the concrete sloughing off. Although the cement is fireproof, it is not waterproof…
With forty-four rooms, multiple levels, uneven floors, winding stairs, and narrow hallways, the interior of Fonthill is a maze, and must have been an interesting place to live – with unique views and discoveries around every corner.
Filled floor to ceiling with Mercer’s collection of books (Mercer was quite a reader – most of the over 6000 book in his collection have margin notes hand written by Mercer which provide clues to his personality. From his copy of A Farewell to Arms, “As convincing as a tapeworm. As charming as a bottle of dead flies”… I guess he was not a Hemingway fan???), historic prints (over 1000, which Mercer used as inspiration for his castle and tiles),
zillions of tiles, both of his design and archaeological finds, imbedded in the walls and behind chicken wire (including examples from China, Holland, Mesopotamia).
Animal lovers should keep eyes peeled for paw prints in the cement. Mercer kept Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, and several were immortalized in cement at both the castle and museum.
Guided tours only. The building is pretty dim in daytime, but for even more atmosphere, you can take an evening candlelight tour.
The Mercer Museum
Like Fonthill, the museum is full of tiny side hallways, spiral staircases, even an attic, and despite the large 6 story central atrium, it’s easy to lose your way (or traveling companion). Over 40 rooms contain Mercer’s extensive collection of pre-industrial America. The rooms are scientifically organized by trade – all part of Mercer’s attempt to chronicle history being lost to the Industrial Revolution.
A side room of the attic contains a 19th century gallows, court dock, and hearse… coincidentally (?) next to the schoolroom.
The museum is located in downtown Doylestown, a few minutes drive from Fonthill and the tile works.
Moravian Pottery and Tile Works
Begun in 1898 by Mercer to prevent the loss of hand crafted Pennsylvania German pottery to machine production, the pottery moved to its current location in 1912 (a short walk downhill from Fonthill). The tiles are all Mercer’s original designs, or his adaptations of historical designs (many from the antique firebacks in his collection).
His display won grand prize at 1904 World’s Fair, and Mercer received commissions from all over the world, including the Pennsylvania Capital rotunda floor, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Boston mansion, the casino in Monte Carlo, and Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. He created both individual tiles, as well as sets that told stories -such as Christoper Columbus (below) and Dickens’s Pickwick Papers.
Today, the tile works is a working history museum run by the Bucks County Department of Parks and Recreation, and still trains artisans in the craft of tile manufacturing.
You can purchase reproductions made using Mercer’s original molds, local clay, and Mercer recipe glazes in the shop, and take a self guided tour around the building to see artisans at work.
The best place to enjoy Mercer’s tiles in-situ is the Pennsylvania Capital in Harrisburg.
Over 400 Mercer mosaics are inlaid in the tile floor documenting the flora, fauna, and history of Pennsylvania from Franklin’s Kite experiment through the rise of the industrial age. The tiles cover the ground floor and can be viewed anytime the building is open. To see the rest of the spectacular c.1906 building (including the amazing art-deco paintings by Philly artist Violet Oakley), you have to take a free 1/2 hour guided tour.