March 02: the sage of Doylestown

2012/03/02 § 5 Comments

On this day in 1930 Henry Chapman Mercer died.

Archaeologist, collector, historian, ceramicist, architectural innovator and tinkerer, Mercer (b. 1856) was one of those great intellectual omnivores that are in such short supply these days, but who seemed to light up America’s cultural firmament in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Having the good sense to be born into a wealthy family, Mercer grew up well-traveled and well-educated.  He might have become one more Philadelphia lawyer but instead took a position as curator of American and Prehistoric archeology at the University of Pennsylvania, but dedicated the greater part of his life to historical mission in his hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania.  He was a founding member of the local historical society and built three great institutions that allowed him to indulge in his unusual historical interests.  These were fostered by his worry that industry threatened to erase or destroy America’s past.  In addition to this concern prompting his interest in the Arts and Crafts movement, it led him to collect as much early—really early—American material culture as possible.  He scoured the country for artifacts of America’s pre-industrial history, with a particular interest in pottery and ceramics, going as far to take an apprenticeship in pottery.  Then, to do something with his amassed treasures and talents, he founded a museum to display his collection of native American tools, and established a manufactory, the Moravian Pottery and Tile works, to preserve a handicraft that was disappearing—and built them both.

Mercer also built his own house, Fonthill, his personal monument and museum.  In 1908 he began construction on the 44-room building that took four years to build.  Its design was a piecemeal conglomeration of ideas the gathered in sketchbooks during his European journeys, and it has a vaguely medieval manor quality to it, expect that the whole thing is reinforced concrete.  The whole thing: walls, roofs, built-in bookcases, chimney stacks, window mullions.  Concrete had entered a little kind of vogue at the time, and it posed a certain challenge or opportunity since, unlike such materials as bricks or timber, it did not have an obvious formal nature.  Its plastic quality had been famously considered by Frank Lloyd Wright in buildings like Unity Temple, which shows the architect’s understanding that the material was best suited to blocky, rectilinear forms.  Less famously, Thomas Edison also investigated its potential in home construction, patenting a system that allowed him to realize the design of a traditional foursquare in a single pour (except that the system was clunky, expensive, and ultimately not really satisfying, so very few Edison houses were “realized”).

With a few hired hands and a mule, Mercer piled up bushels of dirt and some unusual formwork and poured on the concrete; the soil was later cleared out to reveal the rooms.  The house comprises a virtual material history of tile making, with ceramics from his own works, and those he collected from Persia, China, Spain and Holland, embedded in the structural concrete.  More of Mercer’s personality is revealed through the books that remain on the shelves, the engravings and prints nailed to the walls, and even the footprints that his dog left on the still-wet stairs.  Fonthill is one of the most personal houses in the country, offering dizzying ramble through a cool abode as well as a fascinating wander through the concrete manifestation of a great mind.

image: the Columbus Room, Fonthill (from this source)


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§ 5 Responses to March 02: the sage of Doylestown

  • Susan Barsy says:

    Dear Clio, there is broken link at the very beginning of this post (the underlined bit below the picture). (You’ll do the same for me one day, perhaps.) Susan

  • Susan Barsy says:

    Thank you for this; my sister is a mosaicist and I’m an historian, yet neither of us knew of the sage of Doylestown. We shall visit his haunts!

  • Hello Clio!

    I stumbled onto this post when I saw your ping back to our story about Edison Concrete (thanks for that!)

    Anyway, I wanted to thank you for sharing with the world a story about a man who has been a hometown hero of mine for as long as I can remember.

    You see, long before I found myself enlightening the inquiring masses on the history of everyday things, I was a child growing up in the shadow of Mercer’s concrete castles. I’ve spent many a cloudy afternoon wandering the halls of his museums well as the grounds of Fonthill.

    Now that I think of it, I imagine his influence is exactly why I’m so in love with the story of things today.

    Besides the collection itself, what always intrigued me was his motivation for building his estate from concrete: as we learned it, Mercer was deathly afraid of fire, so he chose concrete to build *everything* from floor to ceiling.

    Consequently, it also happens to be a great medium for laying tile 😉

    I’d urge anyone in love with history, architecture, pre-industrial America, or roadside curiosities in general to make a trip if they ever have the chance.

    I’m not sure there’s anything quite like it on the planet!

    • Clio says:

      Invention Geek, You are so right. Mercer’s view and activity were unique and we are better off for him having lived as he did, a crazy genius of the best sort. And the Muse must note, what a wonderful job you have, the Story of Things. They do, indeed, tell wonderful stories.

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