Grandeur, Quaint Charms Mix in Pa.

By Sue Kovach Shuman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Raouf Grissa says he made a wrong turn in the 1980s and ended up in Doylestown, Pa. He liked it so much he stayed.

Grissa, 51, once had a restaurant on Paris's Rue Dauphine. Now he and his wife, Karen Slattery, operate Paganini Ristorante, which serves made-from-scratch pasta, and a pizza cafe and wine bar across the street. "If I can't walk, I can't live," Grissa says. "I do all the shopping by walking. You can walk to the park, to the train station." Trains run from the station, built in 1876, to Philadelphia about 25 miles south.

It's easy to see why Grissa stayed. The 2 1/2 -square-mile town has architecturally interesting buildings, some from the 1700s; part of the town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Frenchman Edward Doyle (D'ouilli became D'oyley then Doyle) came to Bucks County via Ireland. William Penn gave him a land grant. Later a son built a tavern at Doyle's Town, a crossroads that became Main and State streets. The 1840s building there now houses a Starbucks.

In 2001, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Doylestown as one of its "dozen distinctive destinations." In 2005, the town made's list of best places to retire. It wouldn't have 18 years ago.

"Doylestown was getting a little seedy," says Philip C. Ehlinger Jr., assistant borough manager and planning director. "There was a 50 percent vacancy rate." Officials created a cultural district that included converting the old Bucks County prison into the James A. Michener Art Museum, making pedestrian-friendly streets and luring small businesses.

Today there are sidewalk cafes; independent shopkeepers selling clothes, gifts and books; a still-used art deco movie theater; cobblestone streets; and Victorian-style benches. New and old mix seamlessly, even at Doylestown Antique Center (248 W. State St., 215-345-9277), where my husband discovered that the plastic Paul McCartney soap dispenser he'd thrown out could fetch $38.

Begin a walking tour at Bucks County Courthouse near "Lawyers Row" on East Court Street. Take Pine Street to the Michener, named after the Pulitzer Prize winner, who was raised in Doylestown. Stone prison walls enclose a sculpture garden, including one cellblock-size piece.

The Michener room shows the author posing near eight houses he lived in as a child and contains mementos from his travels, such as a 1955 map of Saigon, Vietnam. Elsewhere, a 22-foot Daniel Garber mural shimmers along a wall.

Across Pine Street is the Mercer Museum, a six-story concrete monolith built in 1916 that you'll swear was a prison but wasn't. Named after another Doylestown son, archaeologist and world traveler Henry Mercer, it's devoted to everyday objects -- more than 50,000. The cathedral interior soars, but so much hangs overhead that it's claustrophobic: sleighs, trunks, chairs, a fire engine, Conestoga wagon and whaling boat. Small numbered rooms resemble cellblocks. Each contains tools of 60-some early-American trades and crafts, including butchering, hatmaking and doctoring.

Mercer raided attics, barns, junk dealers and auctions for the museum. Part of its charm is that some items are ragged (a wooden Buffalo Bill lost his left arm). The Mercer is also quirky: A vampire-killing kit with vials and cross should intrigue jaded museum-goers.

To understand the man behind the museum, we went to his home, Fonthill, then to the adjacent Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, where Mercer tried to revive Pennsylvania-German pottery-making but instead created unique tiles that today adorn the Pennsylvania State Capitol, businesses and private homes.

Fonthill is a 1910 castle, but forget everything that word conjures up. Mercer poured concrete over a farmhouse, then kept adding to it. Walls curve, vaulted ceilings reach upward and 32 staircases of varying widths and lengths weave together 44 rooms with 18 fireplaces. Mercer didn't want architects telling him what he couldn't do, so he hired laborers to work under his direction. The result: a jumble of rooms that can be toured only with a guide.

"Every column in the house is different," guide Brian Horne informed us. Nothing is standard, no two of 200 windows alike.

It would be hideous, except for tiles and mosaics in the ceilings, floors, walls, everywhere. Some are Mercer-made; others are from his travels. Arabic letters are hung upside down (Mercer didn't always know what he collected), and Chinese temple dragons perch overhead.

Each room is named and could be locked with a key. The tile mural in a bedroom provides a hint of Mercer's relationships with women. It depicts a man who tells his bride that he's taking a trip and that she can go anywhere in the house except for one room. Of course she goes there and discovers two murdered ex-wives. Mercer never married.

Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Mercer built in some furniture, such as a concrete desk. In bedrooms, wooden chests are encased in concrete on three sides.

In his lifetime, Doylestown didn't appreciate his fortress. Today there's a renewed interest in concrete dwellings for their heating properties and relatively inexpensive construction. Architecture students should be required to tour Fonthill, if only to be inspired to push the limits of imagination.

Mercer's factory gets 50,000 visitors a year, according to Charles J. Yeske, who manages it for Bucks County's Parks and Recreation Department. It offers workshops and apprenticeships. Six artists produce tiles using traditional tools.

In the gift shop, souvenir tiles cost $7 to $522. Tiles for building projects can be ordered, too; small unglazed border pieces start at $1.05 each.

Next, we visited a more recent Doylestown addition: the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Founded in 1955 by Pauline monks, the contemporary church with stained-glass windows houses a Black Madonna painting, like the Polish original. The faithful go to pray. We went for the 43rd Polish-American Festival: pierogies and pysanki (eggshell painting).

As the car turned homeward, I wondered: What would Mercer think of the shrine's sharp, uncluttered angles? But this is Doylestown, where new and old coexist peacefully.

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