Great Estates: Fonthill in Doylestown, Pennsylvania

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Located on sixty acres in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Fonthill, the home of Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930), one of the leaders of the American arts and crafts movement, stands as a testament to handcrafted goods, replete with relics dutifully gathered by Mercer in the wake of the industrial revolution.

Mercer, a Bucks County native, graduated from Harvard in 1879.  After receiving a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he turned to archaeology, serving as the curator of American and pre-historic archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania Museum from 1894 to 1897. Recognizing the need to preserve the daily material culture of preindustrial America, he began collecting “above ground” archaeological artifacts such as hand tools and horse-drawn vehicles.  The arts and crafts movement, already underway in Great Britain, inspired him to create his now world-famous line of architectural tiles at the Moravian Pottery and Tiles Works, which have been in production since 1899.

Between 1908 and 1912 Mercer built Fonthill by hand with the assistance of a small group of laborers using the poured concrete method of construction, which he for its plasticity and fire-resistant properties.  Refining the technique—developed in Paris in the 1850s—while building his Moravian Pottery in 1910, his mastery of the process was confirmed in 1916 when he erected the Mercer Museum, a six-story castle with a central atrium built to house his collection of almost 30,000 artifacts.  All three structures, which comprise Mercer Mile, can be visited today.

The labyrinthine interior of Fonthill consists of forty-four rooms, including ten bathrooms, five bedrooms, at least thirty-two stairwells, eighteen fireplaces, and twenty-one chimneys and air vents-the whole illuminated with natural light supplied by over two hundred windows.  Mercer also incorporated many modern conveniences, such as an intercom system, two dumbwaiters, an Otis elevator, and steam heat.

Without a doubt, the highlight of Fonthill is its most permanent of permanent collections:  Mercer’s tiles, including creations from his Moravian Pottery as well tiles he collected, which range from ancient to contemporary and are bountifully incorporated into the walls, ceilings, and floors of the ad-hoc mansion. To keep things organized, tile labels are inlaid directly into the concrete walls.  Especially fanciful is the room dedicated to the voyage of Christopher Columbus—a fascination for Mercer—that includes narrative tiles of seafaring vessels and native inhabitants. A portion of Mercer’s collection of prints and engravings collected from around the world is scattered throughout the house, along with built-in bookshelves that hold over 6,000 volumes, and arched wood-plank doors—all adding storybook charm to Mercer’s masterpiece.

Mercer inhabited Fonthill until his death in 1930, at which time the property was entrusted to his housekeeper and her husband, Laura and Frank Swain.  Mrs. Swain remained in the house and conducted occasional tours until her death in 1975.  Since then, the trustees of the Mercer Fonthill Museum and the Bucks County Historical Society have managed the house as a public museum.  Fonthill was given National Historic Landmark status in 1985, and in 2005 the Mercer Museum received accreditation by the American Association of Museums.

Visitors might want to plan a trip during the upcoming period-themed “Winter Wonderland” ( December 2 through January 3, 2010) to see Fonthill’s halls bedecked for the holidays.

Fonthill is located on Route 313 & East Court Street in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and is open Monday through Saturday, from 10 am to 5 pm, and Sunday, from Noon to 5 pm, for guided tours only.  Fonthill is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.  Admission: $10 adults, $9 seniors (age 62 and over), and $4 ages 5-17.  Children under 5 and members are free.  To make a tour reservation, please call (215) 348-9461.  For more information, go to