A blog about architectural tiles, terra cotta and other ceramic surfaces, architectural glass and ornamentation in and around New York.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Tiles of Fonthill Castle

In June 2013 I asked permission to take photos of the interior of Fonthill, Henry Mercer’s concrete and tile home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. I was granted access to Fonthill with my camera, and our party was given a tour of the “castle” by one of the curators, Ms. Janeen White. Prior to our appointment at Fonthill, we visited Henry Mercer’s Museum in the center of town. Sadly, though, we did not have time to visit his Moravian Pottery and Tile Works.

Mercer designed and built three buildings within a mile area in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. From 1913-1916 he built a museum to house his “collections”. Mercer would travel the countryside and bid in local auctions, buying almost anything that was for sale. He amassed a huge collection of objects that represented the everyday life of the people in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which now constitutes much of the museum.

“The entrance foyer to the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania serves as a kind of shrine to Doylestown's patron saint: Henry Chapman Mercer. The display depicts Mercer the archaeologist, Mercer the collector, Mercer the museologist. In short, with photographs, wall text, and exhibits behind plexiglass, we are presented with Henry Mercer, the eccentric, turn-of-the century renaissance man. In a life that began just before the Civil War (1856) and ended at the beginning of the Depression (1930), Mercer's pursuits were indeed wide-ranging. ...Mercer thought of himself primarily as a historian, and that is what gave coherence to all of his activities. He spent his life in an attempt to study the history of America through objects.” (Steven Conn, “Henry Chapman Mercer and the Search for American History”, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 116, No. 3 (Jul., 1992), p. 323)

The Mercer Museum in Doylestown. (All color photos courtesy of Michael Padwee unless otherwise noted)

“In his collecting, Mercer's central focus remained on tools. Tools, in Mercer's view, made human progress--the taming of the continent of the great forest--possible.” (Steven Conn, “Henry Chapman Mercer and the Search for American History”, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 116, No. 3 (Jul., 1992), p. 330)

In 1897 Mercer exhibited over 700 tools from his collection. He called the exhibit “Tools of the Nation”, and announced his view “...that, more so than politics or war, these simple tools and the people who once used them were responsible for creating the nation." (Steven Conn, “Henry Chapman Mercer and the Search for American History”, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 116, No. 3 (Jul., 1992), pp. 333-334)

In 1925 Henry Mercer still had this view of the importance of his collections. Mercer commented that “A tremendous murmur comes out of these things, that completely drowns the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the Revolutionary War. It is the voice of Humanity, of Ages on Ages, from all parts of the world… .” (From a wall plaque in the Mercer Museum)

The rear of the Museum. The lunette over the red door is a tile mural 

made by the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works.

A fireplace faced with Mercer’s “brocade” tiles on the Museum’s fifth floor. The cast iron fireplace firebacks on the wall were part of a larger collection, many of which were used as models for Mercer’s tiles.

Engraving plates and engraving tools collected by Mercer.

Part of a general store collected and reassembled by Mercer.

Part of the general collection. Mercer hung the larger objects from the ceiling and sides.

"Henry Mercer...[was] convinced that the history of Bucks County was the history of the world. At first he did all the collecting himself, but over the years he developed quite a network of people that would bring him items from far and wide. His first collection burned down, thus creating the desire to house the entire new collection in a fireproof, concrete building.  So in 1916, Mercer erected a 6-story concrete castle. The towering central atrium of the Museum was used to hang the largest objects such as a whale boat, stage coach and Conestoga wagon. On each level surrounding the court, smaller exhibits were installed in a warren of alcoves, niches and rooms according to Mercer’s classifications — healing arts, tinsmithing, dairying, illumination and so on. The end result of the building is a unique interior that is both logical and provocative. It requires the visitor to view objects in a new way. It is easy to follow and gives you a wonderful sense of how things were actually used." (http://www.artandarchitecture-sf.com/category/u-s-cities-other/philadelphia Mercer’s collections illustrated ordinary life in a non-mechanized society just as it was about to irrevocably change and disappear.

Moravian Pottery and Tile Works.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MonorovianTileWorks.jpg; Photo taken by Babagaga, 2006)

Henry Mercer also built the Moravian Pottery and Tileworks (1910-1912), which has continuously produced tiles for over a century. Lastly, he built his home, Fonthill (1908-1912), and he used both antique tiles, that he collected on his world-wide travels, and his own, Moravian tiles throughout the house.

According to historian Cleota Reed, in about 1907 Mercer began to visualize what each room of the interior of his residence would look like. He then began to think about the exterior of the structure, and he built a plaster to-scale model to work from. The house “structure is of reinforced concrete throughout and a fire could be started in any part of the building without endangering a single structural feature except the window frames. In some cases even these are made of cement. Foundations, walls, columns, beams, floors, stairways and roof are all of indestructible concrete… .” (“Bonfire on His Housetop”, Cement Age, Vol. XI, No. 2, Aug. 1910, p. 98) 

A plaster model made prior to the construction of Fonthill. (“Bonfire on his housetop”, Cement Age, Vol. X!, No. 2, Aug. 1910, p. 98)

Mercer’s method of room construction and ornamentation was called "'earth vaulting', [...which he described as]: 'You stand up a lot of posts--throw rails across them--then grass--then heaps of sand shaped with groined vaults, then lay on a lot of tiles upside down and throw on the concrete. When that hardens, pull away the props and you think you're in the Borgia room at the Vatican.' ...Mercer deliberately left the concrete raw and unpainted, appreciating the vitality of residual marks of the casting process." (Michael Gotkin, Artists' Handmade Houses, Abrams, New York, 2011, p. 10) 

The farmhouse, around which Fonthill was built, is on the left, before its roof was raised. (Photo courtesy of the Fonthill Archives)

“Mercer hired between eight and 10 tradesmen who knew nothing about concrete to help him build the castle. ...The laborers started by encasing a farmhouse that already existed on the property in concrete. The laborers made forms for walls and columns using boards they stood up vertically and tied together with rope or wire. The forms for the walls had openings in some spots, so Mercer could use those openings as conduit for plumbing and heating pipes.

The original farmhouse, now with raised roof, is part of the central portion of Fonthill at the right of this photo. It is encased in concrete.

A model showing the “earth vaulting” process and the molds for the concrete columns. (Courtesy of the Fonthill Archives)

“To create the ceilings, Mercer had the laborers erect large wooden platforms across the top of each room. They poured mounds of dirt on the platforms, shaped the dirt into the curve Mercer wanted the ceiling to have and poured a layer of sand on top of the dirt. Then they laid the tiles face-down in the sand in the arrangement they wanted them to appear in the ceiling, placed wire over the tiles and poured the concrete. ...Mercer finished construction of Fonthill in 1912 — four years after he started. The finished castle had 44 rooms, 200 windows, 18 fireplaces and 32 stairwells, including special stairs for his dog Rollo.” (Christina Kristofic, “The story of Fonthill's 100 years”, May 27, 2012; http://www.phillyburbs.com/my_town/doylestown/the-story-of-fonthill-s-years/article_d17bddf2-bca1-5d5a-ba48-d5f21904e759.html)

The “Rollo” stairs with Rollo's pawprint.

One contemporary design critic wrote of the decorative potentials of tiles and used interior views of Mercer’s home, Fonthill, as examples. “In order fully to grasp the potentialities of the tile as a decorative factor we must recognize, first, that its texture has an exceedingly important bearing in interior composition. Whether tiles be unglazed or glazed, and whether the glazed surface be smooth or diversified by irregularities, the texture is so totally different from the textures of any other materials that we must reckon...with its effect upon the other features of the fixed decorative background and with its effect upon the movable equipment. [...When considering color, color] goes along pari passu with the pattern interest and is its strong ally. ...tiles are preeminently suitable as a medium in which to present flat, decorative design, whether the adjunct of relief be employed or not… . As may be gathered from the examples given, the possible variations of pattern and treatment in this sort of tile decoration are practically inexhaustible.” (Cranfurd Mease, “The Tile’s Title to Esteem”, Arts & Decoration, Vol. XI, No. 6, October 1919, pp. 289-290)
A tile representation of the pre-Columbian city of Tenochtitl├ín as seen on the Bow Room ceiling is part of “a complex of images of late pre-Columbian Mexico as it existed when the Spaniards discovered and destroyed it. …'The tiles...were made...in 1909 from a reprint of the ancient map of the prehistoric City of Mexico which accompanied the first letter of Ferdinand Cortez to Charles V… .’ ” (Cleota Reed, Henry Chapman Mercer and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1987, p. 130)

Henry Mercer also believed that the architect who used concrete should not be ashamed of using concrete as concrete. Concrete should not be masked with coverings, it’s beauty should be enhanced: “Having made dry walls with air spaces; splendid columns, vaults, beamed or groined ceilings, all produced in a texture of the softness of pumice stone, and suggesting the touch of time and weather, what shall we do with it? One thing remains, namely, color, and our contribution to the subject is in the form of applying lintels, medallions, corbels, bands, corners and capitals as details, and mosaics to the structure in an artistic way.”  Mercer goes on to say that decoration should be used sparingly to break the flatness of a large concrete area. 

The Columbus Room floor mural.

Mercer “devised a series of mosaics and tile patterns...wherein the design is produced by colored pieces of clay, cut out in the wet, burned, and joined together by joints of cement…[, where] the joints themselves form part of the drawing and help to delineate the design. Where pictorial in nature,...these patterns are bound to the surface of the building with rather conspicuously colored borders.” (Henry C. Mercer, “Where Concrete Stands for Concrete”, Cement Age, Vol. VI, No. 1, Jan. 1908, pp. 12-13)  

The "Indian Making Fire" mural is one of Mercer’s more famous tile roundels.
A geometrically-designed floor mural

On the other hand, these patterns may be geometrical in design, “and consist of the repetition of certain units in the forms of triangles, lozenges, rhomboids, and so forth. Whether these patterns are geometrical or pictorial, they “may be sunk below the true level of the building so as to be rimed with shadow or rise above it; and, furthermore, may stand upon a flat plain or level, or consist of molded and mounted units so as to intensify the lines of form in low relief.” (Mercer, p. 13)  

Tile work in the Library.

“In all this work the value of contrast is largely depended upon. [Is it…] not true that glazes look more rich and glossy against the dullest and grayest possible surfaces of cement[…?] ...experiment has already shown where...a real wall or a real column has escaped the plasterer and where these imperishable [tile] colors were embedded into...the building,...the needed life and glow has been added to the rough-hewn structure." (Mercer, p. 15)   

Different mosaic techniques in the Hall of the Four Seasons.

For Mercer, “The mosaic style and the innovations it precipitated (solid-clay color bodies, wider-set mortar joints) offered...much more flexibility in design and many more possibilities for original composition than his plain and conventional tiles. ...Besides his patent for mosaic tiles, Mercer also developed what he called brocade tiles, which were used extensively in Fonthill. “His brocades are silhouetted tiles, modeled in high relief and quite different in appearance and character from his flat mosaics. In his mosaics, the many small elements form a picture in which the concrete joints serve an outlining function… . This is not the case with his brocades, in which each modeled tile is a separate pictorial entity...often set well apart from others. Here the concrete serves as a background field, vignetting rather than outlining highly irregular shapes. The brocade style developed out of Mercer’s increasing interest in the decorative value of concrete.” (Cleota Reed, Henry Chapman Mercer and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1987, pp. 110, 113)  

Part of the Columbus Room ceiling showing some of Mercer’s “New World” brocade tile series.

The Columbus Room fireplace with brocade tile work.

The Russian fireplace in the Breakfast Room.
Part of this fireplace was based on a scene on a cast iron fireback.

Dickens’ Pickwick Papers depicted on the West Room fireplace.

A fireplace in the Saloon has a tiled Biblical theme and tells the story of “The Rich Man and Lazarus”.

As you enter Fonthill, today, you walk through the tiled entry hall/Museum store. The concrete columns are capped with brocade and flat tiles.

To the right is the entrance to the original kitchen with its cast-iron, six-burner stove and a tiled dumbwaiter that lifts food to the Breakfast Room above.

Throughout Fonthill you will find furniture designed by Henry Mercer and built into the rooms.

A concrete and tile desk and side seat in the West Room.

A small tile table.

Mercer’s original bedroom, the Dormer Room. The dresser was designed for the room.
Michael Gotkin (text), Don Freeman (photography), Artists’ Handmade Houses, Abrams, New York, 2011, np)

A desk and dresser in one of the nine “chambers” or bedrooms.

The bathrooms were also tiled.

The bathroom in the Dormer Room.

A bathroom with a Moravian-tiled floor and a backsplash that includes tin-glazed,
blue and white Dutch tiles.

Mercer used tiles he collected, such as these Islamic “star” and rectangular tiles, along with his own tiles as wall and ceiling decorations.

Some walls had embedded European tin-glazed tiles.

A wall of Mercer’s own design.

Concrete windowsills and jambs were also treated with tile decoration.

The "MOR" on the tiles is a mark of the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works.

The tile decorations on the window, and the tiled seat and desk in the West Room.

The stairs also had tiled risers.

From the Columbus Room to the Garret.

Some of the tilesetters signed their work with tiles.

"Set by Jacob Frank". George Jacob Frank was the chief tile-modeler at the Moravian Pottery for many years. (Cleota Reed, Henry Chapman Mercer and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1987, p. 121)

Mercer embedded ancient artifacts in the tiled concrete pillars in the Saloon.

There were some outbuildings on the estate which were also tiled, such as the springhouse.

The door is surrounded by tiles, and the portico ceiling is also tiled.

Although the springhouse was locked, tiles could be seen through one of the grilles.

These photos only show a small portion of the historic tiles collected and used by Henry Mercer, as well as the tiles he designed and produced at the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works to decorate Fonthill. If you have the chance, visit the Mercer Museum and the Moravian Tile Works, and be sure you don't miss the tour of Fonthill Castle.

I would like to thank the staff at the Mercer Museum and Fonthill Castle for their helpfulness and knowledge about Mercer and his tiles, and to the staff at Fonthill for allowing me to take interior photos. My special thanks to Janeen White at Fonthill for her excellent and informative tour.

Further reading: 
Cleota Reed, Henry Chapman Mercer and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1987.

Michael Gotkin (text), Don Freeman (photography), Artists’ Handmade Houses, Abrams, New York, 2011.