In continuing with the series on Bucks County, I thought I’d talk a bit about possibly the coolest piece of history and art that this county has to offer. I may be biased because of its proximity to my house and the large part it played in my childhood, but the “Mercer Mile” that is the Mercer Museum, Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, and Fonthill Castle offers a wonderful insight into Henry Chapman Mercer.
Mercer was born in Doylestown in 1856, and is well-known for a variety of things, including being a founder and member of the Bucks County Historical Society, his beautiful tiles that are showcased across the world, and his extensive archaeological research. I’ll definitely be writing more about him because of all that he’s contributed to the area I live in, but for this post, I want to focus on Fonthill Castle.
Henry Mercer built this structure between 1908 and 1912 after he had built his Moravian Pottery and Tile Works on the same property. There was a barn that Mercer used the foundation of for his castle, and then he poured concrete around this original barn (and in addition to it) to create the beautiful structure that stands today. Fonthill was to be used as his home, but also as a way to advertise for his vast collection of tiles.
When I say advertise, I mean he has these tiles on the floors, ceilings, columns, inside of fireplaces, even lining bookshelves. A lot of these tiles were made by Mercer himself, and are still being produced and sold at the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, but some of these tiles are from all around the world! Mercer was an archaeologist, so he has Sumerian tiles dating back to 2100 BC, Persian tiles from the 17th and 18th centuries, and even antique Chinese tiles on the roof. He also has intricate tile patterns on a few of the ceilings inside that tell stories, such as the tales of Bluebeard the pirate and the story of Columbus coming to America.
The inside of Mercer’s home was originally brightly painted in pastels, but age and sun exposure over the years has faded the paint entirely. One of the rooms, located in the Terrace Pavilion, was restored to display the paint job that the house would have had in its prime!
The tour guides will tell you that Fonthill was built “from the inside out”. I never quite grasped what this meant, but in further research, Mercer was told to have erected columns and placed a platform on top of them. On the wooden platforms he would put mounds of sand, in the shape that he wished the vaulted ceiling to be. His tiles would be pressed face-down into the sand with concrete poured onto the backs of the tiles. When the concrete was dry, the platforms and sand would be removed, unveiling the beautifully crafted and decorated ceiling!
Visiting this historic building as a kid was absolutely mind-blowing. A home that had 44 rooms, over 200 windows of different shapes and sizes, and narrow, curving stairways aligned perfectly with what would have come out of my imagination. There was even a staircase named after his dog, Rollo! (This mostly was because Rollo had walked up the wet concrete, leaving his pawprints behind, but I liked to think that it was strictly for the dog.)
Stay tuned for more on Henry Mercer and Bucks County! Have a great week! 🙂