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Concrete Evidence

By Jonathan Paul and Barbara Collier
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 7, 1999; Page C09

  Escapes


    Fonthill Estate, Bucks County, Pa. A bedroom at Doylestown's Fonthill is all tilework and cozy nooks. (By Barry Halkin)
Late on an autumn night in 1912, a man climbed onto the roof of his mansion, doused a large pyre of scrap lumber with kerosene and set it ablaze. Across the road in a more modest residence, a poor washerwoman saw the conflagration and rushed terrified to the bedside of her adopted son, a 5-year-old orphan.

The incendiary gentleman was Henry Chapman Mercer -- scholar, collector and ceramic tile maker extraordinaire. He was indulging in a bit of rational exuberance to celebrate the completion of Fonthill, his astonishing, dreamlike home, constructed entirely of fire-resistant concrete. The little orphan was future multimillionaire author James A. Michener; the fire was his earliest memory.

We had traveled not quite three hours north to Doylestown, in Bucks County, Pa., to spend a brisk March weekend exploring the legacy of these two philanthropists: Mercer's three theatrical "castles" (all National Historic Landmarks) and the James A. Michener Art Museum.

Fonthill stands in 60 acres of rolling lawns and woods at the end of an avenue of sycamores. The interior can be seen only by guided tour. The 44-room house is an eccentric fusion of modern and medieval: Staircases coil into rooms of organic asymmetry with soaring columns, grand fireplaces and vaulted ceilings, illuminated by dangling low-wattage light bulbs. Mercer took advantage of concrete's plasticity to adjust the design as he built, each day sketching what he wanted his eight laborers (and horse Lucy) to do. He worked from models and sketches but never used blueprints.

Like Michener, Mercer traveled widely. Unlike young Michener, he could always go first class. His passion for the arts was encouraged by his beloved and very wealthy Aunt Elizabeth, a sort of Auntie Mame character who took him to see Rhineland castles, stoking his interest in history. It was the loss of her husband's priceless armor collection to a catastrophic fire that inspired Mercer to build in fireproof concrete. When Aunt Elizabeth died in 1905, she left Mercer her considerable fortune. A lawyer by training and an archaeologist by profession, at the age of 52 Mercer became an artist in concrete and clay.

The house is no mere bachelor's folly. As a collector, Mercer planned Fonthill as a museum to display his collections, primarily tiles -- from ancient Babylonian clay tablets, to delft, to Chinese roof tiles -- and as a showplace for his own spectacular decorative tile work. Almost every interior surface (including stair risers) is encrusted with hundreds of multicolored bas-relief clay tiles, many of which tell stories: biblical tales, the exploration of the New World, Bluebeard's castle, the Arkansas Traveler. It's like brocade. The effect is kaleidoscopic.

For his tile works Mercer created a Spanish-mission-style building on the grounds of Fonthill. The Moravian Pottery and Tile Works was a successful business, flourishing during the heyday of the Arts and Crafts movement. Mercer tiles were shipped worldwide and were used in many notable buildings, such as the Gardner Museum in Boston, the Pennsylvania state capitol in Harrisburg and the National Press Club in Washington.

The Bucks County Department of Parks and Recreation now operates the tile works as a living museum. After watching a video explaining the history of the works, we took a self-guided tour. Mercer's designs, glazes and processes are still used, and the artisans were happy to answer our questions. We lingered in the gift shop agonizing over the perfect souvenir. Our choice was a green tile depicting an Etin, a ferocious Norse wind creature that seemed appropriate for March.

Mercer collected more than tiles. He was ahead of his time in acquiring traditional American tools -- "junk" that had been made obsolete by 19th-century industrialization. When the tile works was finished in 1912, Mercer set his crew and Lucy (who, by the way, received a paycheck) working on a museum to house his tool collection. Little Michener would see Mercer bicycling daily from Fonthill to the building site with his entourage of Chesapeake Bay retrievers. The two never spoke.

The museum, his final castle, a towering concrete confection of gables, windows and stairways, has a central court surrounded by seven stories of glassed-in galleries, each of which displays the tools of a different trade or craft. When we entered, a sign announced that it was 45 degrees inside. It wasn't kidding. Mercer didn't install a heating system. (The docent volunteered that it got quite toasty in the summer.)

Our first impression was of walking among the jumble of a giant's attic -- a whaling boat here, a cigar store Punch there -- though everything is labeled and categorized. In a room on the top floor, we found ourselves surrounded by "tools" of the legal profession: a prisoner's dock, a horse-drawn hearse and a wicker coffin. We froze when we suddenly realized we were standing under a gallows, perhaps salvaged from the prison across the way -- now the Michener museum.

Imaginatively converted from the former Bucks County prison, the James A. Michener Art Museum is a delightful gallery devoted to the dazzling local talent. Heave a clay tile in any direction in Bucks County, apparently, and you'll clobber an artist or writer.

Besides a room devoted to Michener (who made his fortune when another Doylestown resident, Oscar Hammerstein II, turned his "Tales of the South Pacific" into the musical "South Pacific"), we saw works by 18th-century "Peaceable Kingdom" painter Edward Hicks, the Pennsylvania impressionists, the New Hope modernists and woodworker George Nakashima. One fascinating permanent exhibit was "Creative Bucks County," featuring some of the celebrities who made their homes here. Among the writers in this clever multimedia display are George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Dorothy Parker, Oscar Hammerstein, S.J. Perelman, Jean Toomer and Pearl S. Buck.

In a living-room-like setting devoted to Kaufman and Hart, Hart's guest book is opened to a page signed by an irate Alexander Woollcott, which reads, "This is to certify that, on my first visit to Moss Hart's house, I had one of the most unpleasant evenings I can recall ever having spent." Hart remarked to Kaufman that at least Woollcott hadn't broken his leg and been forced to stay on for weeks; this remark was the genesis for the classic "The Man Who Came to Dinner."

Broken legs seemed a possibility Sunday afternoon, as March winds blew in a late-winter snowstorm. We retreated to our B&B, where amid the silence of the swirling snow, the only sound to be heard was the sound of falling tiles -- Scrabble tiles.


Ways and Means

Getting There: Doylestown, a happy mix of Colonial, Federal and Victorian architecture, is about a two-hour, 45-minute drive from the Beltway. Take I-95 north to Chester, Pa.; then north on I-476; east on I-276 and north on 611. (It's about 20 miles north of Philadelphia.)

Being There: Fonthill, Mercer's home, is at 525 E. Court St. (215-348-9461). Open daily, guided tours only, reservations advised. The Moravian Pottery and Tile Works (215-345-6722) is a short stroll from Fonthill at 130 Swamp Rd. (Route 313). Open daily, with semi-self-guided tours every half-hour. The Mercer Museum, 84 S. Pine St. (215-345-0210), is open daily. The James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St. (215-340-9800, www.michenerartmuseum.org), is closed Mondays. All museums have an admission fee.

Where to Stay: We stayed at the Inn at Fordhook Farm, 105 New Britain Rd. (215-345-1766, $150 double), home of W. Atlee Burpee, writer of seed catalogues and developer of the Big Boy tomato and much more. (It has a nice Mercer tiled fireplace.) Highland Farms, 70 East Rd. (215-340-1354, $150 double) was the home of Oscar Hammerstein II; about five miles away in Holicong, Barley Sheaf Farm (215-794-5104, doubles start at $150) was the home of George S. Kaufman.

Where to Eat: There are many opportunities in Bucks County and the Delaware Valley for a gastronomic blowout. We opted for the more moderately priced Chambers (19 N. Main St.) and Paganini Trattoria (81 W. State St.) in Doylestown and ate very well indeed.

Details: Contact the Bucks County Conference and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-836-2825 or www.bccvb.org. The Bucks County Historical Society (215-345-0210), which operates Fonthill and the Mercer Museum, has a helpful Web site at www.libertynet.org/bchs.


The Escapist

Planning a visit to the City of Brotherly Love with a few loved ones in tow this summer? You might want to check out Philadelphia's new CityPass, valid for admission (for nine days from the first time you use it) to the Museum of Art, the Franklin Institute Science Museum, the Philadelphia Zoo, the Academy of Natural Sciences Museum, Independence Seaport Museum and the New Jersey State Aquarium. The passes, which save you about half the walk-in costs, are $27.50, $20 for ages 3 to 11 (or $23.75 for ages 65 and older); contact the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-537-7676, www.libertynet.org/phila-visitor.

Getaway tips? Good trips? Send a note to escapist@washpost.com. For a guidebook filled with more than 75 getaway ideas, check out Escape Plans, now available at bookstores and area Giants.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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