Historic Mercer Museum and Fonthill Castle Are Focus of Bucks County Historical Society
MERCER MILE MAGIC: Situated within a mile of each other in Doylestown, Pa., the Mercer Museum, left, and Fonthill Castle, right, are the legacy of Henry Chapman Mercer, who designed and filled them with his unmatched collection of pre-Industrial Revolution tools, artifacts, and tiles. Operated by the Bucks County Historical Society, both the Museum and Fonthill, where he lived, offer an exceptional view of early Americana. “You can see history as well as the amazing spark of Mercer’s imagination throughout the Museum and at Fonthill,” says Karina Kowalski, Bucks County Historical Society manager of education.
By Jean Stratton
The unique imagination, intellect, energy, and resourcefulness of Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) are on display at the Mercer Museum (84 South Pine Street) and Fonthill Castle (525 East Court Street) in Doylestown, Pa.
If you are a first-time visitor to these amazing places, you are about to experience the magic of the Mercer Mile!
Fonthill Castle was Mercer’s home, and just a mile away, the Museum houses his immense collection (more than 50,000 items) of tools, implements, and artifacts of pre-industrial American life.
Under the auspices of the Bucks County Historical Society (BCHS), the Museum and Castle are open to the public and are a major part of the Society’s mission, explains Marjan Shirzad, the Society’s chief operating officer.
Memories and Stories
“It is the mission of the Bucks County Historical Society to educate and engage its many audiences in appreciating the past and to help people find stories and meanings relevant to their lives — both today and in the future,” says Shirzad.
History is relevant to everyone, she adds, especially when communities “share memories and stories that connect them to one another.”
The Bucks Country Historical Society will become a “connector” organization, she points out, “moving toward multi-disciplinary education and commitment to serving the community to ensure that the Mercer Museum and Fonthill Castle become as deeply rooted in the hearts of people as the iconic buildings are prominently established on the landscape.”
Certainly, history comes alive at these two locations, both designed by Henry Mercer. Truly a “Renaissance man,” he was born, lived, and died in Doylestown, but traveled extensively through Europe and the Middle East with his wealthy family.
After graduating from Harvard, he attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School and passed the bar, but decided to pursue archaeology instead of practicing law. After more travels, he was named curator of American and Prehistoric Archaeology at the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.
His life as a collector began in earnest in 1897 according to a BCHS report. “Searching for a set of fireplace tools in the barn of a junk dealer, he gazed upon a jumble of objects made obsolete by the introduction of power machinery: plows, flax breaks, spinning wheels, and the like. Suddenly, he was stuck by the fact that there before him lay the very evidence that future archaeologists would one day be searching for.”
He began to acquire a variety of everyday objects from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and later in 1897, he exhibited his collection at the Doylestown Courthouse, which was then the BCHS headquarters. He had been one of the BCHS founders in 1880.
Mercer called his collection “The Tools of the Nation Maker,” believing, as he wrote: “If we are going to collect old furniture, porcelain, and candlesticks, why not go a step further, and gather hoes, axes … scythes, forks, plows, and beehives, any and all things … illustrating the daily life of a people at a given time.”
During this time he also became interested in the pottery-making of the Pennsylvania German community, and was dismayed to learn that the craft was disappearing. Eventually, he constructed his own kiln, experimented with clays and glazes, and focused on making his own tiles. He both designed tiles and then collected others from all over the world, becoming so successful that in 1901 he received a commission for a tiled floor at Fenway Court, now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
For the next quarter of a century, Mercer’s tiles were installed in hundreds of important construction projects worldwide. They were set around fireplaces, and depicted characters from Shakespeare and Dickens, Biblical and historical figures, and even various sports. The biggest installation was the floor of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, installed during 1904-05.
His focus on tile became a major factor in the construction of his dream house, Fonthill Castle, in 1908, which was completed in 1912. Ultimately containing 44 rooms, 18 fireplaces, and more than 200 windows, with walls, floors, and ceilings adorned with his handcrafted tiles, this became not only his home but a museum illustrating the history of tiles. Every kind of tile, including mosaic and brocade, was incorporated into the design. Babylonian clay tablets, antique Dutch Delft, and paneled walls with tiles from Spain, Italy, and Persia were highlighted, along with his own Moravian tiles.
In addition to the tiles, Fonthill contains a library of thousands of books on a myriad of subjects, and its concrete exterior is another example of his interest in durable, lasting construction.
A bachelor, Henry Mercer entertained a number of prominent visitors from around the world. Composer Victor Herbert, author Owen Wister, poet Amy Lowell, and many famous artists and collectors, as well as members of such notable families as the Roosevelts and the Rothchilds all came to Fonthill.
After receiving a substantial inheritance from a beloved aunt, in 1914, Mercer began work on the Mercer Museum. Completed in 1916, the seven-story reinforced concrete castle is one of Buck’s County’s premier cultural attractions, and a Smithsonian affiliate.
He chose to construct the building in concrete not only because of its durability, but because it was fire-proof. His aunt’s prized collection of medieval armor had been destroyed in the Great Boston Fire of 1872, and he wanted his collection to be safe from the risk of fire.
Mercer designed the plans for the museum to house his enormous collection of pre-industrial hand tools and other implements of early America. He believed that the story of human progress and accomplishments was told by the tools and objects that people used, and he did not want them to disappear from memory.
In addition to tools, it displays furnishings, carriages, stove plates, a gallows, oil lamps, an early 19th century printing press and fire engine, a whale boat, a Conestoga wagon, and much, much more.
Designed from the inside out, Mercer said, “It was made for the collection, the collection was not made for it.” With seven floors and 55 exhibit rooms, the interior plan consists of galleries that wrap around a central court. Each level is lined with glass-enclosed alcoves and cubicles of assorted shapes and sizes, each devoted to a specific trade or craft.
Objects were sorted into categories by Mercer, such as shelter, cooking, clothing, learning, transportation, and amusement. Spinning wheels, cider presses, wooden ballot boxes, gallows, (the last one used in Bucks County), engraving tools, early bicycles, farm wagons, butter molds, and tavern signs (“the tool of the inn keeper”), and weather vanes are all part of the eclectic mix. So are clock-making tools, basket- and broom-making items, glass-blowing devices, navigation needs, and musical instruments.
Intriguingly, many items are suspended from the ceiling, including a large whale boat. Baskets, cradles, and butter churns all dangle from above.
Words really cannot convey the sheer magnitude of items in the collection. Their numbers certainly merit more than one visit, and many people return again and again, finding items that had previously escaped their notice.
“This is a wonderfully historic place,” says Karina Kowalski, BCHS manager of education. “It also shows Mercer’s emphasis on lifelong learning, and the wonder of the world around us.”
The Museum was closed during the height of COVID-19, she adds, but now people are returning. “They are really coming back in larger numbers than pre-COVID. I enjoy seeing the visitors and appreciate their enthusiasm. We are passionate about education and history here. It’s a fantastic place that is filled with history.”
Visitors are all ages, and special programs are available for elementary school students. A variety of programs and rotating exhibits are offered, and new acquisitions continue to be added to the collection. “We also have a strong community program, working with Doylestown and the Bucks County community,” points out Kowalski.
Arts and Crafts Movement
In addition to the Museum and Fonthill, Mercer designed and built the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. Another concrete structure, its overall design was based on the Spanish mission churches of California. It became a major part of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and was a busy factory, creating tile.
Today, it serves as a museum and producer of tiles, and is situated within a multi-use park, just a short distance from the Museum and Fonthill. It now operates under the purview of the Bucks County Department of Parks and Recreation.
The Mercer Museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and also is included in a National Historic Landmark District along with Fonthill Castle and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works.
A visit to these historic places is truly an adventure back in time. Seeing these 3D items that were such an integral part of life in days gone by does make history come alive. And as Henry Mercer said, “The history of man is here studied, not through written documents, but by means of the implements and handmade products which he has left behind….”
Fonthill and the Museum are open Tuesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets and tours are available. Call ahead at (215) 345-0210 or visit mercermuseum.org.