Look Up! The “concrete castles” of Doylestown

Henry Mercer was a great collector, but also an architect with a singular vision.

 

“Look Up!” is a PlanPhilly feature that encourages appreciation of our architectural and historical environment. The photo essays focus on different Philadelphia areas and their distinctive building styles and details, all of which make up the physical fabric of the city and region.

 

Before Frank Lloyd Wright explored the possibilities of precast concrete and Mitchell/Giurgola mastered the Modernist use of poured concrete, a Pennsylvania archaeologist-ceramicist-collector erected what he called his “concrete castle for the New World.”

 

Set back from East Court Street near Route 313 in Doylestown, Henry Chapman Mercer’s home, Fonthill, and the adjacent Moravian Pottery & Tile Works are fantastic flights of the imagination. Mercer may be better known for the nearby museum that contains his collections of early American tools and craft products, but his home and factory are wonderful destinations for fans of hobbits, elves and medieval dreams.

 

He built his castle between 1908 and 1910, using reinforced, hand-mixed concrete with its irregular walls and additions supported by buttresses. The home has 44 rooms, 32 stairwells, and more than 200 windows, few are alike in size or shape. Mercer also borrowed from a variety of styles, including Gothic, Norman, Medieval, Spanish Colonial, and Arts & Crafts. His apparent disdain for symmetry and his eccentric vision drew ridicule from contemporaries. Meanwhile, the decorative ceramic tiles that adorn the rooms and exterior of Fonthill were admired around the world.

 

The Moravian Pottery & Tile Works was built in 1912 in the California Mission style, with Mercer’s flair for concrete and clay. The artistic cloister is two and a half stories high, with gabled roofs, towers, parapets and irregular chimneys, much of it decorated with the tiles baked in the kilns within. The U-shaped factory produced floor and wall tiles with designs taken from Pennsylvania flora and fauna and historical and religious themes. Mercer tiles adorn the rotunda of the Pennsylvania State Capitol, as well as the fireplaces and halls of grand homes throughout the country.

 

Fonthill remains well-preserved and open for tours and events, and the little factory continues to produce beautiful decorative and architectural tiles.

 

Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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