By AML Publisher
Photos courtesy April Ziegler Photography
Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) was a pack rat, in the best sense of the word. At the turn of the century, Mercer, a leader in the arts and crafts movement and a wealthy renaissance man who wore many hats (architect, academic, archaeologist and writer just to name a few) constructed two massive concrete castles in Bucks County to showcase a breathtaking and massive collection of American and ancient artifacts. Today, these architectural masterpieces still stand in Doylestown and are home to two of the country’s most breathtaking museums, The Mercer Museum and Fonthill, Mercer’s former home. Thanks to Mercer’s vision, preserving the past for future generations with tens of thousands of unusual artifacts from around the globe, there exists a Main Line daycation unlike any other.
Henry Mercer was born in Doylestown in 1856. Educated at Harvard Law School and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Mercer was appointed Curator of American and Prehistoric Archeology by the University of Pennsylvania Museum in the early 1890’s. His time there convinced Mercer that American society was being destroyed by industrialism, leading him to vacate his position in the late 1890′s so he could devote himself to finding old American artifacts and study German pottery.
Mercer became very involved in acquiring materials and hand-crafted tools from early nineteenth century America. Later in his life, he decided to expand his vast Euro-centric collection and arranged trips to gather objects from West Africa and Asia. Mercer had a special affinity for ceramics and print making and was also particularly fond of earthenware pottery metal works and decorative Pennsylvania–German stove plates.
To serve as a comfortable home base, Mercer began construction on his home, Fonthill, in 1908 when he was 51. The reinforced concrete building, boasting forty-four rooms, ten bathrooms, at least thirty-two stairwells, an Otis elevator and two dumbwaiters, was completed in 1912. Mercer incorporated his own tiles into Fonthill’s architecture as well as tiles he had collected during his travels. Supporting a voracious reading habit, Fonthill’s built-in bookcases hold over 6,000 books. After Mercer’s death in 1930 at his home, the castle was operated by a trust and eventually merged into the hands of the Bucks County Historical Society. Today, over 40 volunteers run the guided tours of Fonthill, which welcomes over 30,000 visitors each year from all around the world.
The Mercer Museum was completed in June of 1916, and was inspired by the amazing collection Mercer was successful in amassing. Thanks to eight day laborers and a horse named “Lucy”, the 6500 tons of concrete stand an impressive six stories high on a 40 acre stretch of land, also in Doylestown. The building is an awesome castle and poses an exciting adventure for all visitors. “It is spatially mysterious and intriguing for everyone, young and old. With the Mercer, you never know what will greet you on the next turn—you could very well find yourself standing under a gallows! From a Conestoga wagon to a stage coach to a whale oil lamp that is over 2,000 years old, it is quite a diverse and most intriguing collection,” explained Cory Amsler, Vice President for Collections and Interpretations of the Mercer Museum.
On the third level of the Mercer is the Spruance Library, a research library open to the public and devoted to the collection and preservation of historic and genealogical documents. Bucks County natives can trace their family history through the comprehensive records and research their Doylestown ancestors. The Library houses over 15,000 volumes of books; periodicals, newspapers, pamphlets, maps, and prints; over 12,000 photographs and postcards, and a wide variety of ephemera such as trade and greeting cards as well as social invitations.
The Mercer Museum offers a variety of programs for all ages including an audio guide of the collections, grade-specific school programs, family craft activities, craft demonstrations and classes, and a summer craft camp. There are also scavenger hunts of sorts to keep younger visitors entertained and learning. Gayle Shupack is the Mercer Museum’s Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator. “Here we have these great, amazing castles in the middle of Bucks County. When people come here for the first time, they always comment that they feel like they are in the European countryside,” said Shupack. “And, the great thing is, we are so affordable and still have so much to offer. A ticket to the museums is less than the price of going to a movie…and they are one mile away. Fonthill’s forty-four rooms offer an intriguing and educational guided tour for visitors. While with Mercer, you are free to roam the entire castle and discover the variety of objects and history it has to offer. The Mercer experience ticket is a great value—it offers a combination entrance fee for both museums, and beautiful downtown Doylestown, with its restaurant row, is within walking distance of the Mercer,” said Shupack.
Every day objects from early America (including those used in trades such as blacksmithing, shoemaking and printing) spark the imagination of what our forefathers’ lives were like. “We have so many curious pieces that you would never have the chance to see up close anywhere else. One of the most interesting objects that I am personally intrigued with is our stage coach. It draws a lot of attention and questions because it is very tiny—it makes you wonder how people even sat in there,” said Shupack. There are also unique things that you will probably never see elsewhere, including Native American implements dating to 6,000-8,000 B.C.
“One of Mercer’s goals was to collect objects that he knew eventually would be obsolete. He was a true visionary and a very wealthy man who had the resources to put this collection into motion,” said Shupack. The collection started as an acquisition from the Bucks County Historical Society and was expanded by Mercer from there. The museum showcases 60% of its 50,000 plus artifacts.
Each May brings the annual folk fest, which celebrates a simpler time and transports visitors back in time as many hobbies and crafts of a time gone by are celebrated in demonstrations across the grounds. This is the 36th year for the festival, always held on Mother’s Day Weekend. It offers an affordable afternoon with something for everyone with more than 80 crafters from nine states participating. “It is an amazing weekend with a tremendous amount of history and education for the families and visitors. We have live entertainment all day, a quilt raffle, puppetry for the kids, you name it. People tell me they come for the whole experience because it takes them back to another era, a time that is hard to conceptualize now with all our modern amenities. There are some great activities on the grounds that are always huge crowd favorites—particularly the glass blowing and sheep shearing demonstrations which the children fully enjoy. Its nine dollars for adults and children under 12 get in free, so it is very affordable! Plus, you receive a complimentary pass to the museum with a ticket to the folk fest. You can’t beat it for the value and fun,” said Shupack.
The sprawling grounds of both estates have become very popular venues for weddings and corporate events. The Mercer’s Elkins Gallery, a stately Georgian room that displays the museum’s collection of Bucks County paintings, can be booked for gatherings for up to 150 people. In addition, Fonthill’s Terrace Pavilion offers an intimate setting for rehearsal dinners or surprise parties. Combined with a tent on the picturesque 60 acres that reflects the rich heritage of Bucks County, Fonthill can serve as the breathtaking setting for a lawn party or wedding of up to 200 people.
In addition to the Mercer Museum and Fonthill, Mercer also designed and constructed The Moravian Pottery and Tile Works which is now owned and operated by the Bucks County Department of Parks and Recreation. Mercer was well known for his research and appreciation of ceramic tiles. His tiles can be seen on the floor of the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg, among other notable buildings across the globe. The series of four hundred mosaics at the Capitol trace the history of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from prehistoric times. These three buildings, all closely make up Doylestown’s “Mercer Mile,” the stretch that connects the monstrous, medieval castles.
Both of Mercer’s concrete masterpieces have been recognized nationally and internationally by prestigious media outlets. Over 80,000 people visit the Mercer Museum each year. Martha Stewart Magazine editors toured Fonthill in September of 2007 as part of a cultural treasure series. “Fonthill has been featured on the A&E show America’s Great Castles. The Mercer Museum has been highlighted on the History Channel several times. Both of these great pieces of Mercer’s life are regularly, nationally and internationally, recognized for their incredible collections. Both museums are National Historic Landmarks. But, it is always the people in our own backyard, in the Delaware Valley, who don’t know what great cultural treasures and rich experiences are just a short drive away here in beautiful Bucks County,” said Shupack.
SAVE THE DATE!
36th Annual Mercer Museum Folk Fest (Rain or Shine)
Saturday & Sunday, May 9-10, 2009
10 a.m.-5 p.m., Mercer Museum
Traditional artisans make the skills and trades of early America come to life. Enjoy a fun-filled day for the entire family, with all-day live entertainment, costumed craft demonstrations, militia encampment, quilt raffle, shopping, picnic foods and more. More than 80 crafters come from 9 states to participate.
Folk Fest offers a variety of family entertainment. The Children’s Stage features puppetry, storytelling and music. The Main Stage offers jugglers and blue grass music. In addition, there is a Children’s Craft Tent where youngsters make a craft to take home. Visitors can also ride a horse-drawn hay wagon or take a unique horse-powered carousel ride.
New prices for savings in 2009!
Admission is $9 for adults, ages 12 and under FREE, BCHS members with membership card $4. Includes admission to the Mercer Museum. Call for group rates (10 or more paying as a group); 215-345-0210 ext. 123.
The Mercer Museum is located at 845 Pine Street, Doylestown, PA and is a short walk from the Doylestown R5, so it is easily accessible for Main Liners traveling the train. The Museum hours are Monday-Saturday 10am to 5pm, Tuesday 10am to 9pm and Sunday Noon to 5pm. The Spruance Library is open Tuesday 1-9pm, Wednesday-Friday 1-5pm and Saturday 10am to 5pm.
Fonthill, Henry Mercer’s home, is located at East Court Street & Route 313 in Doylestown, PA. It is open for tours Monday-Saturday 10am to 5pm and Sunday noon to 5pm. Reservations are strongly advised.
For more information contact 215-345-0210 or visit www.mercermuseum.org.