Thursday, November 25, 2010

Heartbreak Landscape: Arts and Crafts in Doylestown

Little known, except among followers of the Arts and Crafts movement, is a rather extraordinary group of buildings in a pastoral setting on the outskirts of Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Fonthill, a hand-built concrete castle -- even the roof is concrete -- the home of Henry Chapman Mercer, and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, located nearby in the same park-like setting, are both on the National Register of Historic Places, and both are outstanding -- though I think rather atypical -- examples of the Arts and Crafts style.

The landscape in which these buildings sit is astonishing, a dramatic contrast with the small-scale, residential character of much of the surrounding area. And it is the landscape that is really the subject of this post. For this reason, a third notable Mercer building, the Mercer Museum, located in another part of town, isn't of concern here. Henry Chapman Mercer built all three buildings himself, with the help of a group of workmen and a few horses or mules for motive power.

Fonthill, Henry Chapman Mercer's Home
Fonthill, his Home
Mercer, a wealthy single man who found his idiosyncratic place in a corner of the Arts and Crafts world, conceived his home, hired help to build it, and apparently started construction with no formal plans. He even developed the construction methods by trial and error, shaping interior spaces with earth and wooden supports, and pouring concrete into the voids to form the structural elements. All the interior spaces, the walls, floors, stair cases, even the interior bookcases are of a piece, a single molded, three-dimensional mass of reinforced concrete -- almost like a living organism, or the shell of a once-living organism. It's not a warm, cozy place, and it raises disquieting thoughts about why Mercer built it, why its inner structural flow of convoluted rooms, twists and turns, dark passages, is in such contrast to the rolling lawns and open landscape surrounding it. Who was Henry Chapman Mercer and what motivated him to build this singular building?

This little we do know. As a boy he traveled frequently in Europe with his mother. He attended Harvard and graduated without particular distinction. As a young man, he spent about a decade traveling throughout Europe, largely in houseboats. At some point, he is thought to have acquired gonorrhea, which at the time wasn't curable, and is sometimes given as the reason he never married. He worked for a while as an archaeologist, and was especially interested in the native American cultures of his part of Pennsylvania. He developed an interest in ceramics, particularly use of traditional methods for creation of artisanal tilework, that eventually resulted in the creation of the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. He burned all his personal correspondence and papers before his death in 1930, leaving a blank slate in place of a personal history.

Though I can find little in the way of actual documentation, it appears that Henry Mercer must have been influenced by the much earlier Fonthill Abby, another idiosyncratic structure built by the enormously wealthy William Beckford in England at the turn of the nineteenth century. The earlier Fonthill was probably one of the first Gothic Revival buildings in England, hearkening back to an earlier, idealized period, in much the same vein as the Arts and Crafts movement in America a century later. The English Fonthill was also built of unusual materials -- rough stone bound with mortar and covered with a sand coating to resemble stone -- but in this case simply for speed of construction rather than artistic principle, or to experiment with use of new materials for artistic pursuit. The earlier Fonthill's central tower was almost 300 feet high, and it collapsed several times, eventually leading to destruction of the building. Interestingly, Beckford has a reputation for having large numbers of young men in residence with him at Fonthill, and earlier in his life was accused of having an intimate relationship with the teenage son of a friend, an event that led to his withdrawal from England to France for a number of years.

The Pennsylvania Fonthill sits photogenically amid acres of rolling lawn edged by woodland on two sides and modern roads on the other two sides, though I imagine it was much more isolated when it was built from 1908 to 1912. An elevated entry drive lined by Sycamores gives a formal approach for the few who use it, and the branches of the trees effectively block views of the entire house, allowing only tantalizing glimpses as you approach, enhancing the dramatic effect of seeing this idiosyncratic building close up.

Representing a single individual's artistic vision, though perhaps a retrograde one, Fonthill is a far cry from the more domestic style of such practitioners of the movement in America as Gustav Stickley, the Roycroft Studios, Greene and Greene, the domestic Arts and Crafts bungalows sold by Sears and Roebuck, and even early Frank Lloyd Wright. Quite a wonderful collection of artists and visionaries we label with the Arts and Crafts rubric, isn't it -- a collection of apples, oranges, peacocks, and misfits, so to speak, all working to reawaken the spirit of individual artisanship in an increasingly industrial age of mass produced goods.

And then there's the British side to it all, where it started really, with John Ruskin as philosopher in chief. If Beckford's Fonthill Abby is Gothic (or Gothik) Revival, I'd have to say Mercer's Fonthill looks more "Hobbit Gothic," though that's an anachronistic reference, I know. A joke, really.

As to the Fonthill landscape, the buildings are set amid a great lawn with, as noted, an entrance allee of Sycamores, a surrounding woodland of largely native trees, and a few magnificent specimens near the house, such as the immense Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) shown below in its autumn garb.

An ancient Sweetgum

I can imagine some of these details on a Mercer tile, since many of them do reproduce naturalistic detail in just this vein.

Entrance Allee of Sycamores

Surrounding Woodland

The Moravian Pottery and Tile Works
Also an essential component of this landscape is the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, built by Mercer only a few hundred feet away on the same estate. The tile works grew out of Mercer's desire to revive the Bucks County tradition of pottery making. When that failed, he turned his attention to hand-crafted tiles and thereby became one of the lights of the Arts and Crafts movement in this country. Mercer built the tile works in the Spanish mission style (see below), using the same poured concrete technique used at Fonthill, almost contemporaneously with construction of the house.

Moravian Pottery and Tile Works
The tile works is beautifully situated behind and to the side of Fonthill, and at a lower grade, making it almost invisible from the house. The walk from tile works to the house becomes a delightful walk of discovery and progressive disclosure as the buildings reveal themselves gradually through the intervening trees.

The chimneys, many decorated with tiles made inside the building, and their varied materials and heights, are a striking, almost garden-like, adornment, and contribute much to the visual appeal of the tile works, as well as the landscape.

Carefully placed tile work is used sparingly to ornament the facades, and the concrete roofs are, ironically, quite reminiscent of thatched roofing from a distance. Note even the window mullions (below) are covered in concrete.

The material (concrete) and the technique (simple pouring) at first seems modern, until you remember the Romans invented concrete, and used it extensively in such buildings as the Pantheon in Rome (huge masses of mostly out-of-view concrete stabilize and anchor the massive dome). The rough, textured surface and mottled coloring (below) create a look of antiquity in a building barely a hundred years old.

The Moravian tiles quickly became widely admired and have been used in buildings around the world. The tile works continues to be active to the present, and sponsors apprenticeships, through the Bucks County Department of Parks and Recreation, that have helped keep alive an active tile-making and ceramics community in the area up to the present day.

The Landscape:  A Word on Mood
These buildings are not happy places full of light. They all carry a heavy, melancholy air, almost a sense of longing, or perhaps more accurately, of loss. This is especially true of Fonthill. The dark interiors, relatively small windows that give little light, and an ascetic quality are in marked contrast to the brightly lit, open, flowing, visible landscape. Even though Fonthill does have some large-scale fenestration, it is mostly dark and close, full of changing levels, awkward turns, and convoluted passageways.

I'm interested in this because I view Fonthill, the tile works, and the setting as a landscape, as a single entity greater than its constituent parts. I well remember my first view of it while driving by, probably almost a decade ago. It was arresting, exciting, pulled me to it, though I had somewhere to go and drove quickly on. But it certainly got my attention, and lingered in my mind's eye like a haunting vision. And I came back. From any direction, the broad lawns, and the striking silhouettes of the buildings, draw your eye across the wide expanse of space, creating a powerful sense of anticipation. You can feel the buildings pulling you inward. 
But once you enter, you're confronted with questions, then mystery. Certainly this is intentional. I'm tempted to try to interpret this landscape using Freudian concepts:  tall, vertical, bejeweled stacks representing repressed phallic desires, dark interiors that hide those desires ( perhaps from Mercer himself), sublimation of unknown, or denied, desires into artistic endeavor. I know this is dime store psychology, but it feels so right I can't avoid stating it.

Though I've often seen tents for weddings and celebrations on the grounds of Fonthill, I can't characterize this landscape as one of gaiety and cheerfulness. To my mind, a somber quality permeates the place. This is a landscape of sadness, a heartbreak landscape, full of melancholy and longing, expressing not a sense of fulfillment, but one of withdrawal and loss. A sad and beautiful place.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Garden Diary: October 24 - Coming Home

View of the garden at Federal Twist - just as the sunlight began to break through,
completely changing the mood of the garden

A certain level of disorientation is a good thing in a garden, at least at the start of a visit. A feeling of being a bit lost sets the stage for a new way of seeing, a receptivity to new perceptions, exploration and discovery.

On Sunday, October 24 I got up early enough to see the sun rise; once it was light, I went out to record the progress of autumn in the garden.

The cloud cover muted the colors. The garden appeared to be in a state of stasis. The clock had stopped. The slide toward winter was temporarily suspended, leaving me with an ominous feeling of disappointment, dissatisfaction, a wish for change.

For most of my life I've lived with the illusion that "emotions" are a mental state, all in the head, so to speak. But that's not true. Emotions are a bodily response. They arise in the body, and in a very real sense,  are physically "felt" before the conscious mind names them. This is the old saw about the head and the heart, the conscious and the unconscious.

Before an emotional impulse is named, before a label is applied, one experiences a state of unknowing, of being lost, and the start of a journey toward understanding--a journey that may last a millisecond or a lifetime.

I have difficulty naming emotions, and my own inclination is to seek meaning in metaphor, or in narrative--using images and stories to explore the world of feeling.

Look at the photo of the small pond below: on this dreary morning the reflective surface, largely obscured by dying growth, called to mind an eerie scene out of Edgar Allan Poe--the "dank tarn" in The Fall of the House of Usher--an image that carries associations of abandon, decay, withdrawal of life, a suggestion of some ominous potential.

Although I don't particularly care for the work of Poe, he's a part of my culture and the images and metaphors contained in his stories are ready to hand, so I saw the scenes below with a sense of the "dark and drear" Poe evokes so powerfully. Glistening wet, dark, perhaps even threatening. I was telling myself a story, though the story seemed to be telling itself, arising spontaneously as I simply observed. But I know that wasn't so; I was participating in the process.

Then things changed; the sun broke through the cloud cover (photo below), scattering light into the garden, and my mood lifted, my emotional response changed. All thought of Poe vanished.

Suddenly the garden was full of warm golds, reds, browns, tans, the backlighting dramatically silhouetting the individual plants, and reflective light revealing surface textures and color. I had been lost, musing on images from Poe, then I found what I didn't even know I was looking for. As the sun sparked the garden into life, my response was visceral, a sudden flood of anticipation, an aching tension in the body like a lover's response to the beloved.

This was more than appreciation of a pretty picture, more than painting with plants. The closest I can come to expressing my feelings is to say the change was like coming home.

My garden is clearly of a type, heavily influenced by the so-called New Wave or New Perennials style that grew out of a naturalistic garden movement in Europe, Germany and Holland in particular, and that began to influence gardening in the UK around the mid-1990s. It broke onto the American scene about ten years ago, prominently in books by Piet Oudolf, Noel Kingsbury, Michael King, and Henk Gerritsen, and was already making its mark in the work of our own Oehme and Van Sweden.

This new approach to garden design and planting is usually described as "Romantic," almost always with a capital "R". When I hear that word used, I hear a pejorative. It is too easy to dismiss this style as a nostalgic retreat from reality, as dreamy-eyed picture painting while our world seemingly tumbles into the chaos of terrorism and political fragmentation.

I think we've misnamed the look and the feel of these naturalistic gardens. "Romantic" isn't the right word;
it paints with too broad a brush, and it's been so overused it has little meaning.

Though it may look Romantic, my own garden was very much conceived as a rational, clearly thought-out response to the nature of this place, to difficult soil conditions, to poor drainage, to the surrounding wood that casts deep shadows, to the presence of a low mid-century house overlooking it all.

When I recall my feelings looking at this land six years ago, before the heavy growth of cedars and assorted brush was cut and removed, I think of Poe again. It was a dreary place, full of fallen trees and the detritus of decades of neglect.

But I brought with me five years of experience in my Rosemont garden, where I had first tried my hand with a garden in blatant imitation of the gardens I saw in the books of Oudolf, Kingsbury, Gerritsen, King, and, of course, our Americans Oehme (naturalized American from Germany) and Van Sweden, who himself was trained in Europe. The list could go on, but these are the bright lights in my memory.

So faced with this place I knew was not a good or easy place to make a garden, I approached the situation with the knowledge and tools I had learned from these men (why not women, an interesting question?).

I knew I also needed some very specific advice about the appropriateness of plants to my challenging habitat, so I got a copy of Hansen and Stahl's Perennials and their Garden Habitats (Die Stauden und Ihre Lebensbereiche), translated into English. Based on decades of research conducted in central Europe, this book contains exhaustive lists and descriptions of plants suited to various habitats. It was extremely helpful in selecting plants to match my garden conditions.

I don't see my garden as a result of plant painting to create a "Romantic" picture, not at all. It's the result of a very rationale process of design and planting, as well as a lot of practical experimentation to see what would die, what would only survive, and what would thrive. It is a very practical response to a difficult situation.

Certainly, for me, emotion is at the heart of my experience of this garden. And in a sense, any emphasis on the importance of emotional response might very well be called romantic. But what we have in the New Perennials movement isn't a retrograde or reactionary way of seeing the world, but is a synthesis of the rational and the feeling, a search for a way forward in a world that has experienced the degradation of overuse, pollution, and an out of control (human) population, and of course limited resources. Labor is expensive today, and most gardeners need to manage their gardens with minimal paid help (very practical).

But I do not mean a "return to nature" in any sense, and I have certainly not tried to create a native plant garden.

Note the liberal use of Miscanthus, a Japanese grass, not native, for sure, but one that looks right in this situation, and it thrives. Mixed in you will see several native plants: Pycnanthemum muticum (Mountain mint) in low silvery masses, scattered Physostegia virginiana (Obedient plant) in buttery yellow, dark seedheads of Rudbeckia maxima, and the almost black stems of Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum).

This is an American prairie--not a real prairie certainly, but a simulacrum of a wet prairie, adapted to my local conditions and to my personal preferences.

So where does emotion fit into this picture? That depends on the observer. To someone familiar with the New Perennials style, there is an immediate recognition and connection with an established palette of feelings associated with appreciation, or critical observation, of this style. To the less knowledgeable observer, the uninitiated, a state of confusion may result. Some simply see wild, uncultivated land. Some actually experience discomfort, possibly even fear, and want to quickly return to the high ground near the house, or even retreat inside the house.

I've observed this many times, and I don't see this reaction as bad. My garden has, in a sense, ambushed such visitors, attacked their preconceptions of what a garden should be, and this attack occurs at an emotional, possibly unconscious, level. Perhaps it will set off a longer term rethinking and future change in attitude.

Below, Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah', a native plant, but its attraction for me is a sensuous pleasure, not an intellectual satisfaction or an ethical statement on use of native plants.

Another merging of the native and the non-native into a naturalistic prairie planting--native Pycnantheum muticum surrounded by Miscanthus sinensis 'Silberfeder', a grass of Japanese origin, with a German cultivar name.

The "transparent" tall grass below is Molinia caerulea 'Transparent', another European.

In the case of my garden, the style of the house overlooking it, and the situation of the house at an odd angle to the border of the property (to make it face south) also dictated a naturalistic, informal style, without a perceptible grid or axis. Again, this was not a romantic impulse, but a practical decision to keep the garden in a style appropriate to a modernist house built in the mid 1960s.

A small, secluded sitting area in the middle of the plantings.

I've said a lot, perhaps too much, so the rest will be silent.

(well, almost silent)


The New Wave has been much in the news recently--that is, the horticultural news--and I imagine we will soon be seeing magazine articles and books about this garden design phenomenon. With a "Dutch Wave" exhibition at the Garden Museum in London, blogs by Noel Kingsbury and Darryl Moore, and newspaper articles about this perennial-intensive, naturalistic, emotional style of planting, we appear to be in for some retrospective, and reassessment, as the media makers look back over the past 15 years.


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