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Oddball Hall

Near Philly, tiny Doylestown, Pa., celebrates a baronial pack rat.

By Dan Gilgoff
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 24, 2002; Page C02

Walking into the nave of Henry Chapman Mercer's cathedral to the preindustrial age is like stepping into a Lewis Carroll novel. A baby blue whaling boat 30 feet long hovers three floors overhead, strapped to a concrete pillar. A water-powered wood saw shoots up four stories into the chilly air. A chorus of wooden chairs and cradles hangs from the ceiling on strings. This is Colonial Williamsburg on amphetamines.

Indeed, much of Doylestown, Pa., still exists as native son Mercer wanted it: a homespun holdout in a cookie-cutter world. The final stretch of road into town, a two-lane thoroughfare that shoots north out of Philadelphia, may be straddled by insipid chain restaurants and strip malls, postmodern insignia that would make Mercer turn over in his grave. But as my girlfriend and I drove into Doylestown's old quarter, Mercer's dream world thrust itself upon us: A sand-hued castle, studded with more than 200 windows of a dozen shapes and sizes, sat like a mirage in the bright April morning.

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Inside the poured concrete citadel, now home to the Mercer Museum, a low-budget video introduced its namesake, a Harvard graduate who spent his life bucking the industrial Zeitgeist of his age. After trekking through the United States and the Yucatan on archaeological digs, Mercer had his life transformed at a turn-of-the-century barn sale. Sifting through piles of handmade tools rendered obsolete by the Industrial Revolution, he realized all those artifacts were about to pass quietly into history's dustbin.

The rest of Mercer's story was painted onto a nearby wall: "I was seized with a sort of fury and rushed over the country, rummaging the bake-ovens, major-houses, cellars, hay-lofts, smoke-houses, garrets, and chimney-corners on this side of the Delaware Valley." Lucky for Mercer, his aunt married a Bostonian who rode the industrial wave that Mercer so ardently resisted. She left him an inheritance with which to pursue his avocation.

With much of its 50,000-artifact collection unguarded by guide ropes or glass vitrines, our spin through the museum felt more like one of Mercer's barn-sale adventures than a walk through a Smithsonian hall. We skipped most of the informational placards to inspect a towering grist mill and a hulking cider press from all sides, as if we were admiring Greek sculpture. This stockpile was Mercer's Walden, a stand against the mass-production milieu that pulled America from its plow and into the factory. Thoreau wrote; Mercer hoarded.

Vowing to take up homesteading, we crossed the street to a rambling, 19th-century stone prison that now houses the James A. Michener Art Museum. (For just a blip on the map, Doylestown is flush with famous former denizens, Oscar Hammerstein and Margaret Mead also among them.) The Michener -- founded with a $1 million gift from the author -- glowed with the bright vernacular canvases of Bucks County painters, many who left the Big Apple for the greater Doylestown hinterlands. And there was a gallery of landscapes from the Pennsylvania impressionists who colonized the banks of the nearby Delaware River early last century.

Since you can cut across Doylestown in the time it takes to strap on your seat belt, we shouldn't have been surprised to learn that our innkeeper at the Pine Tree Farm Bed & Breakfast is the daughter of an electrician who worked for many of the painters who've inhabited the Michener. As we walked up to our room -- one of just three in the house built by Quakers in 1730 -- we passed by a fireplace laid with tiles from Henry Mercer's tile works, an anachronistic cottage industry that's still turning out merchandise just a couple of miles down the road from the Pine Tree.

Mercer's tilemaking venture began with yet another attempt at reclaiming history. Shortly before building an arsenal for his junk, Mercer erected a workshop in the Spanish-mission style to revive pottery-making, once the mercantile soul of Bucks County. The business tanked, but Mercer found a market for elaborate handmade tiles of his own design. With the Arts and Crafts movement in full swing, he shipped his wares around the world; the halls of the State Capitol in Harrisburg sport hundreds of Mercer tiles depicting scenes from Pennsylvania history.

We discovered the real showplace for Mercer tiles the next morning, at the end of a long, tree-lined driveway on the edge of town. Mercer's home estate, built by eight laborers aided by a horse named Lucy (immortalized in a rooftop weather vane) and christened Fonthill nearly a century ago, resembles a French chateau designed by the Addams family. A nest of peculiar gables peek out from a 44-room villa that soars into a tower at one end and spills down through roofs and balconies into a row of lofty arches.

"We're going to see the way light dances through this castle," announced tour guide Barry Gerhart, standing inside Mercer's two-tiered library. "And from hour to hour, as the sun traverses the sky, the house changes dramatically." In the sun-drenched saloon, a wall of 17th- and 18th-century Delft tiles is chronologically arranged , and a column is adorned with tile fragments from ancient Babylon.

Mercer built Fonthill both as a home and a monument to the objects of his desire, tiles. And while Mercer's colorful clay nuggets (many were designed in odd shapes like squiggles and grape bunches) portray Charles Dickens tales and Columbus's arrival in the New World in painstaking detail, the structure itself stole the show. The house is a labyrinth of dark passageways, winding staircases and hidden wooden doors. At one point, 10 separate hallways and staircases converge on a single landing.

After the tour, we drove a short way to the hacienda-like tile works. Inside, Eric Boynton, an apron-clad artisan, pressed chocolate-colored hunks of clay into a plaster mold to forge thick braidlike tiles. The workshop still relies exclusively on the 6,000 molds designed by Mercer. "Large orders still come through here," Boynton said as he tapped a trio of braids out of a mold. "This one's for a customer spending in the neighborhood of $40,000 for a large residence, more than 10,000 tiles."

On the way home, we passed back through the chain restaurants and strip malls. As we emerged from Mercer's wonderland, they looked even more insipid than ever.


GETTING THERE: Doylestown is 3 1/2 hours north of Washington by car. Take I-95 north to I-476 north to the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-76) east. Get off at Pennsylvania Route 611 toward Doylestown.

MERCER'S HAUNTS: The Mercer Museum, 84 S. Pine St., 215-345-0210; www.mercermuseum.org. Fonthill, East Court Street and Route 313, 215-348-9461; www.mercermuseum.org/fonthill, (reservations for tours strongly advised). The Moravian Pottery & Tile Works, 130 Swamp Rd. (in back of Fonthill), 215-345-6722. Also a must-see: The James A. Michener Art Museum, 148 S. Pine St. (across from the Mercer Museum), 215-340-9800;


WHERE TO STAY: The Pine Tree Farm Bed & Breakfast (2155 Lower State Rd., 215-348-0632) offers three cozy rooms with private baths ($175 to $200, two-night stay required on weekends) and a sumptuous homemade breakfast (ours included potato pancakes and poached eggs wrapped in sheets of country ham). The other nearby B&B is the Inn at Fordhook Farm (105 New Britain Rd., 215-345-1766; seven rooms with private bath, $225-$395) on the rambling former estate of seed magnate W. Altee Burpee, also offering a full breakfast. In town is the historic and recently renovated Doylestown Inn (18 W. State St., 215-345-6610; $135-$195), with breakfast vouchers for a nearby restaurant.

WHERE TO EAT: The local favorite for dinner is Roosevelt's Blue Star (52 E. State St.) with a lineup of appetizers like sun-dried tomato hummus ($6.50) and steamed Prince Edward Island mussels ($8.50), and hearty steak, seafood, and pasta entrees ($13-$26) plus handsome desserts. For the best pub fare in town, try Kelly's Steak & Fish House (29 S. Main St.), serving ethereal French onion soup, monster burgers, crisp salads, and a seemingly endless list of domestic and imported beers.

INFO: Bucks County Conference & Visitors Bureau, 800-836-2825, www.bctc.org.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company