Friday, July 18, 2008

Doylestown and Henry Chapman Mercer.

Every time I visit Eastern PA, I get tempted to go up to NYC for a day. There's some kind of magnetic pull that draws me to that city like nowhere else. When people periodically ask me where I daydream about living, it's always the first place that occurs to me. But I've never had a particularly good reason to move there, and in the absence of a compelling objective, it's a dangerous and costly place to call home. There are too many temptations and it would require too much compromise. Yet it remains my premier destination to visit. However with a six-month old baby in hand, it just didn't seem logistically possible this time around. Having already hit Philly, we tried to brainstorm another day-trip.

We decided to go to Doylestown. This borough is the county seat of Bucks County, and is situated about 34 miles north of Philadelphia. Why would anyone want to go to this sleepy little village? Well, you could ask a sophisticated urbanite of the early Twentieth Century that very question, and you'd learn about the "Tools of the Nation-Maker" museum, which was run by the Bucks County Historical Society. The building that houses its collections was constructed from poured concrete by donor Henry Chapman Mercer. This eccentric archaeologist would eventually bequeath a castle (where he lived out his life) and the Moravian Tile Works ( an operation started when he left academia) to the town.

Mercer was a world traveler who loved collecting artifacts and believed that American society was imperiled by the Industrial Age. He became intensely involved with the American Arts and Crafts Movement and created the cultural institutions that would bear his name. Fonthill (Mercer's home) was originally considered a folly, as it was built by its owner with a haphazard design and off-kilter sensibilities. Many of his neighbors considered him a loon, and he did nothing to discourage those perceptions. He used to have roaring bonfires on the roof of his castle to underscore the fireproofing advantages of using concrete as a building material. He decorated its 41 rooms with objects from around the world, the vast majority of which still reside within Fonthill's walls.

We got to see a good portion of Mercer's domicile on our hour-long tour. Our guide (despite being new) was a great source of information, and didn't shy away from the more salacious details of Henry Mercer's life. Her favorite feature of Fonthill is a series of tiles, located in the "woman's bedroom", that depicted the adventures of Bluebeard and his last wife. It was an interesting decorative touch for a guy that was never married. Mercer did however have associations with the fairer sex. Apparently he contracted gonorrhea as a young man... an affliction for which there was no cure during his lifetime. Fonthill is a living monument to the energies and passions that Mercer sublimated into his many odd pursuits.

The Mercer Museum is certainly worth a visit as well. At one time this odd amalgamation of the tools and objects used in nearly every profession imaginable was thought to be one of the best museums in the entire country. In fact Henry Ford cited it as a major inspiration for his own material legacy in Dearborn, MI. It's an odd jumble of stuff that you could stroll through in an uninspired half hour. Conversely you could spend half a day marveling at its copious treasures. It all depends on how much you are fascinated by objects of daily work-life from a bygone era. The major advantage that it has over the "house tour" mentioned above is that you are allowed to photograph the Mercer's holdings. Obviously that appealed to me.

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