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.


  1. Purty as a speckled pup!

  2. Allan,
    You're supposed to be depressed! How's life in the Pacific Northwest rainforest?

  3. What an interesting dialogue. I remember seeing Fonthill from a distance last year when I went to visit Margaret Roach's garden and stayed in Hudson. I thought it was spectacular up on the hillside (from my lower vantage point) but alas didn't visit since we were short on time -- although it was on the list.

    I know what you mean about melancholy and longing; I often wonder how such large and imposing structures can feel like home to anyone or whether you must have an awfully large sense of self to live in one. Thank goodness for the setting and those glorious trees!

    Your hobbit reference was interesting; I see similarities with the work of Gaudi and even English thatched cottages. There is a push and pull between playfulness and austerity which might be a a reflection of Mercer's own dual personality and angst (my own dimestore psychology!)

    Thanks for the discussion. It makes me want to definitely visit it next time.

  4. Ailsa,
    I like your comparison to Gaudi, which I agree Fonthill has similarities to. I also find your comment about the the push and pull between playfulness and austerity revealing, and would like to explore that idea. Mercer may very well have had a lighter side I'm not aware of, and my post may say more about my personal feelings about his landscape and buildings than about the historical Henry Chapman Mercer. Now that would be an interesting idea to explore.

    I think the house you saw from Hudson was Olana, Frederic Edwin Church's home (see, a Moorish style Victorian mansion overlooking the Hudson River. Since you only saw it from a distance, I imagine you couldn't see the detail. Mercer's Fonthill, in Doylestown, PA, is on low ground, nothing like the elevated heights of Olana, and quite distant from Hudson -- certainly not visible from there (my guess is it's over a hundred miles distant).

    We stayed in Hudson last year to visit friends, and also visited Margaret Roach's garden on a Garden Conservancy Open Day. I hope to have time this spring to visit many more of the gardens in the Hudson River Valley.

  5. James,

    Of course! Olana not Fonthill. Isn't that interesting that I confused the two. I should have known since I wasn't in Pennsylvania after all. Bad Canadian! ;c) (Plus the fact that I studied the English Fonthill in graduate school...)

    I am also curious about someone who would make such a place and think he must have had lots of secrets if he felt the need to burn his papers. Perhaps he had important friends and lovers that needed to remain anonymous ...

    Anyway, I am also enamoured of the Hudson Valley and can't wait to visit again. So many beautiful gardens to see! And yes, I am also grateful for the Garden Conservancy that allows strangers to peak in personal spaces. Is yours open btw?

  6. That unezxpected snow last Sunday night kinda got our attention - people out here can't drive any better than Southerners in snow and ice. Now we're back to cloudy skies and light rain. All I have to do is believe cloudy skies out here are the same as sunny skies back in Mississippi. Hope New Jersey in November gives way to a wonderful Christmas season. Bless you, old friend.

  7. Ailsa,

    I don't know much about the English Fonthill, other than the little I found on the web. I'd love to learn more. My garden's open to anyone who might want to visit. I offered it for the Garden Conservancy, but they visited after a heavy rain washed all the wood chip paths away and crushed the plants--really just about at the worst time possible, and responded that I wasn't close enough to other open gardens (not true). I've since paved all the paths with gravel, so may offer again this year, and ask for a visit when the garden is at one of its peaks. We'll see.

  8. Allan,
    Sounds like you're very happy out there. My best to you. I just got back from a week visiting my sister in Mississippi, picked up some southern magnolia leaves at the supermarket last night (in NJ!), and plan on making a magnolia wreath today. Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandflora)--just about my favorite foliage.

  9. Fascinating post, as always, James. I love the principles behind the Arts and Crafts movement, but I have to say that I find many Arts and Crafts houses rather dark and depressing. Medieval-inspired features such as wood panelling and small windows seem rather claustrophobic to modern eyes.

  10. Victoria,
    I agree with you that many Arts and Crafts houses seem to be dark and depressing. But what Frank Lloyd Wright did with certain elements of Arts and Crafts style is amazing -- his emphasis on individual workmanship, certain architectural details adopted from Arts and Crafts houses, even the entrances to his houses, most of which are dark with unusually low ceilings (I believe he called it the "architectural handshake") that suddenly open up into soaring space with lots of light, even frequent use of clerestory windows to bring in more light.

  11. James,

    Fascinating post. I had never heard of Fonthill or Mercer when I lived in Pennsylvania. I recently visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and was admiring all the beautiful tile work there which is from Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. It is fun to make this connection.

    I just returned from Malvern, PA for Thanksgiving with my family and I was contemplating asking to visit your garden on the way home but I didn't want to bother you during the holiday weekend. I can't imagine the Garden Conservancy not wanting to include your garden. I have visited many gardens with the Conservancy and yours would be right up there with the best. It is certainly on the top of my list of gardens I want to visit.

  12. Michael,
    You would have been welcome had I been here. We were in the south visiting my sister for the Thanksgiving holiday. I hope you come back, perhaps at a warmer time of the year. The garden's rapidly being drained of color and is mostly tan and buff these days. Interesting you bring up the Gardener Museum. One of the links in my post will take you to a book discussing Mercer's peripheral role among a group of "great house mad" Harvard graduates, a group that was involved with Isabella Stuart Gardener in some way. A very interesting connection I plan to follow up. As to the Garden Conservancy, I think the person who visited wasn't in tune with this kind of garden. And it was in rather awful condition when they chose to visit. Maybe next year.

  13. James, once again I have bookmarked one of your magnificent posts, thank you for the inspiration. Seeing this structure and learning of its background sets my mind swirling. The concrete reminds me of the hypertufa and leaf casting mixtures that I am playing around with and the castle that is still in the planning stages as the next project to tackle. Lots of ideas here, such great beauty.

  14. Frances, you remind me I've been wanting to make some hypertufa containers for growing small plants (perhaps not actually alpines, but similar things) on the terrace. Also some containers of mosses. I should make time to do this during the winter instead of putting it off another year. Thanks for the kind comment.

  15. How utterly fascinating, I've never heard of this place! It certainly is beautiful, but you're right, it's beautiful in a soft of distant, aloof way. How very peculiar the history of the place (and man) are. I do love the grounds, with all those wonderful, mature trees...but it certainly seems melancholy. Thanks for the informative post, I have to look this one up if I'm out in the area someday!

  16. Yes, the buildings are beautiful. A visit always leaves me feeling a little melancholy, at loose ends emotionally, unsatisfied.

  17. I am not sure we talked about when we visited you this summer, but we went to the Mercer Museum while we were up there. I had no knowledge of anything to do with Mercer before we went, so I had no expectations. I was enthralled with the building, more so than its contents. After seeing the museum, I would really like to see his house and grounds, plus the pottery works and will put it on our list of things to do next time we go. Even as a kid I liked big Victorian houses, all divided into lots of dark small spaces full of stuff. I dont' think I would be comfortable living in a house full of soaring light filled spaces, perhaps I am more rodent than raptor.

  18. Which reminds me I had fried rodent (rabbit) last night. Les, if you loved the Mercer museum, I'm sure you'll be delighted with Founthill and the tile works. They're quite spectacular architecturally in the way they evoke the distant past. I don't care for the dark, close, twisty interiors, but if that floats your boat, enjoy it. Even though the landscape and Mercer's architectural works leave me with an unsettled feeling, I do admire them, and we have a collection of the tiles.

  19. Quite extraordinary.

    Poor old Mercer. Wonder what prompted him to leave this world with little trace, burning all his personal correspondence? Now that is sad.

    I like this building. Imagine constructing it without formal plans, letting it evolve instead, there's no fear there, oh and as glib as this may sound, superb chimneys. Actually, on a continued slightly sad vain, Mercer would only ever have seen the trees as saplings, we all get the benefit.

    What an eccentric place.

  20. Hi, Rob -
    Don't mean to downplay the beauty of the buildings at all, especially those chimneys. And I doubt the tile works could have been built without plans of some kind considering the complexity of the buildings, but frankly I don't know. I've actually been wondering what I could accomplish with a similar simplified "make do" technique, pouring sacks of a premixed concrete mixture we have here called "sackcrete" into wooden molds. Columns, for example. Love that ancient, sensuous look of the rough concrete Mercer used.

  21. This is a really interesting post! Thank you.

  22. A friend once said to me a building without chimneys is like a dog with no ears..I entirely agree!



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