Thursday, August 13, 2015

                                     The Concrete Castle

            He bought a tiny farmhouse on sixty acres of land in his hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, hired ten men and a horse named Lucy and set out to prove that contemporary architects were wrong. 
He encased the original structure in concrete, then added, decorated and furnished another 42 rooms. The resulting mansion, the house/sculpture of Fonthill, now a National Historic Landmark created by Harvard-educated Henry Chapman Mercer, founder of the Moravian Tile Works, has amazed visitors from around the world for over a century.
            Henry Mercer (1856-1930) studied archeology, art, law, architecture and virtually every other topic he happened upon before deciding on a career as a ceramic artist. Lurking at the edge of all his study was the desire to design safer buildings. As a teen he had watched an uncle’s residence, stocked with art treasures from around the world, burn to the ground and vowed that one day he would build a flameproof home.
In his twenties, while touring Europe, he had been impressed with fire resistant, medieval stone castles but found them cold, dark, damp and uninviting abodes. Ever the scholar and artist, he closely studied the old buildings and created hundreds of sketches that he later incorporated into the design of his Doylestown castle.
His approach to concrete broke with convention in 1900 when most builders relegated concrete to sidewalk construction, nothing more. Mercer had a higher opinion of the stuff, considering it to be cheap, strong, flameproof, and a perfect backing for the art of his Moravian Tile Works
Ignoring the warnings and ridicule of other architects, Mercer’s home became one of the first freestanding concrete structures. It was custom molded around such modern conveniences as indoor plumbing, central heating and an early Otis elevator - innovative features for any dwelling in 1908. While critics waited for his home to tumble in on itself, he relaxed on summer nights before a roaring fire on the roof of Fonthill, an eccentric act conducted to demonstrate the strength and safety of his home.  
            Mercer, a man of inherited wealth, lived for learning and discovery and considered all tasks and topics with great interest. His motto was “plus ultra,” more beyond. He believed that there is always more to consider in any design, problem or thought. Placed on the front of a stair or tucked into the corner of a fireplace, ceramic tiles with “plus ultra” chant Mercer’s motto throughout Fonthill.
            His involvement in tile making evolved from his interest in collecting hand tools. The turn of the century was, like today, a period of rapid technological change. Then, machine-made goods were replacing the handcrafted, one-of-a-kind; work was moving from shops and cottages to factories, and both the hand tools and the skills needed to use them were rapidly being lost. Mercer used his archeological training to collect, catalog and preserve every old tool he could find. 
            Driven by curiosity, he studied them all, but became enthralled with clay when he studied potters’ tools. He began to develop artistically, first creating wheel-thrown pottery and then designing and carving ceramic tiles. He would later employ thousands of these on the floors, walls and ceilings of Fonthill. 
            Although concrete was the chief material used in his castle, Mercer softened the overall effect of it by adding wood in an eccentric way. For example, recycled multi-paneled doors were used as forms for concrete walls and then left in place, making elegant wood wainscoting in several rooms. All functional doors were recycled wooden doors rescued from other buildings, framed in concrete, and like the windows, of a variety of sizes and shapes. Mercer found his doors and windows at penny lot sales, the rummage sale of his time. 
            Each room in Fonthill has a different size, shape and theme. Like a sculpture, it invites the eye from every doorway and delights with unexpected contours and colors. Mercer didn’t tear down the original house but built around it. He removed the low kitchen ceiling, opening it to what was the second floor.  When he did this, what had been the second floor fireplace was then located high on the kitchen wall, the practical unit then becoming unexpected whimsy, architectural humor. Mercer coated the tall kitchen walls in concrete, to flameproof them, but left the floating fireplace mantle exposed for its decorative, and curious, effect - an arched eyebrow above the kitchen stove. 
            On the first floor, a special, tiled niche was created to house Mercer’s bicycle, his only mode of transportation around Doylestown. In bedrooms, recycled wood flooring was laid near the bed, but away from the fireplace, and tapestries were hung from the walls, in part for color and coziness, in part to mimic the décor of European castles. 
            In many of the rooms, Mercer cast bookshelves and even window seats in concrete, decorating the material with handmade tiles. Tile also was employed to adorn the walls, along with over 900 framed prints by artists such as Albrecht Durer and William Hogarth – part of a collection Mercer assembled from around the world and across the centuries.  
Beginning in 1908, Mercer spent two years and what was considered a fortune – more than $30,000 - building his castle, and two more years decorating every surface with tiles, prints and recycled architectural items. During the twenty years that he lived in Fonthill, Mercer wrote pamphlets and articles about concrete construction techniques. He also published books including Ancient Carpenter Tools, an illustrated reference book printed in 1929, and November Night Tales, a collection of short stories written in the style of Edgar Allen Poe. 
He worked in his favorite study where he placed four desks, one at each window, so that he could read or write wherever the light was best during the day. He read voraciously – his personal collection included more than 6,000 volumes in English, German, French, Greek, Latin, and Spanish, nearly all with margin notes in his own hand. If a book lacked an index or a glossary, the ever-tidy Mercer created one.
Subjects covered by his library include art, shipwrecks, supernatural events, landscaping, ghost stories, architecture, history, religion, travel and much more. His favorite novel was Dickens’s “The Pickwick Papers” and works like “The Arabian Nights” can be found in many languages, as can the Bible and the Quran.
Innovative designs, quirky furnishings and inspired ornamentation annually bring about 30,000 visitors to Fonthill where enthusiastic guides relate the stories and details that make it a vibrant museum. In 1975, The National Park Service declared Fonthill, the Mercer Museum (housing Mercer’s extensive tool collection) and the Moravian Tile Works (Mercer’s ceramic tile factory) to be National Historic Landmarks. The designation honors Mercer’s work in concrete construction techniques, as an archivist of antique tools and as a leader in the Arts and Crafts Movement in American ceramics. 
Mercer respected common laborers and their ordinary tools and materials saying that both the skill and the product comprised an anonymous history of the country, a people’s history deserving of respect. Faithful to those feelings, Mercer chose to die in The Spring Bedroom, a room decorated with tiles of workers.   
After spending time in his home, listening to knowledgeable guides delineate his accomplishments and looking at his collections, one easily develops admiration for Mercer and his work. Fonthill exists as a unique dwelling; the Mercer Museum is an irreplaceable preserve of tools; and the Moravian Tile works offers inspiration for ceramists. Henry Chapman Mercer was an exceptional individual with a sensibility in command of vast stores of knowledge, awareness, creativity and vision. 

Doylestown, Pa, is approximately 400 miles from Buffalo, with most of the driving on limited access highways.  Take Route I-90 East toward Syracuse.  Exit on I-690 and take the I-81 South exit toward Binghamton.  Take exit 194 toward Allentown and then travel on I-476 South.  Take the Mid-County Interchange exit and go 9 miles.  Take exit 343 towards Doyelstown.  Fonthill and the Moravian Tile Works are at East Court Street and Route 313 and the Mercer Museum is at 84 South Pine Street. Daily hours are subject to change, guides accompany all visitors, reservations suggested. Seasonal theme parties are year round.  For information call the Bucks County Historical Society at 215-348-9461, or visit the website. Lodging suggestions at Bucks County Visitors Bureau, or 215-639-0300. Admission charge. Onsite parking is free.

Moravian Tile Works 
Resembling a Spanish mission, the factory, like Fonthill itself, is constructed of concrete. The building surrounds a courtyard where work can be performed outdoors in good weather. The factory produces Mercer’s original tile designs using tools and techniques developed by him.  Moravian tiles are found throughout the country, including at the Boston Gardner Museum, the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg, and the John D. Rockefeller Estate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. 
The Mercer Museum

This museum contains Henry Mercer’s collection of tools and every day objects grouped by trade: for example, woodworking, metalwork, agriculture, and textiles. The constantly growing collection currently contains more than 50,000 tools and artifacts illustrating themes of early American social and economic history.

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