The Mercer Mile in Pennsylvania

By Bonnie & Bill Neely

Henry Chapman Mercer was an unusually accomplished and interesting man, who was born in 1856 and lived until 1930. He was well-educated and practiced law from 1881 to 1885 and was additionally self-taught through his avid reading. His passion was in travel, and he became an archeologist, digging in many countries. He never married so in his hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, he built Fonthill Castle, a beautiful 44 room home for himself. Next to the Castle is a most unusual, sprawling and weird-looking Gothic or Medieval cement structure, his Moravian Pottery and Tile Works factory where he and his factory workers produced hand-made exquisite clay tiles with designs that referred to many famous works of art and literature and Greek and Roman mythology and more. He was a collector, so he also built the Mercer Museum to house his collections of 60,000 tools used in everyday life before the Industrial Age began, so that future archeologists would not have to labor to dig up relics of the earlier centuries in America nor try to figure out what the tools were used for.

The Mercer Museum belongs to Doylestown since Mercer’s death and it has good signage, so tours are self-guided. However, at the beautifully situated Fonthill Castle on his 70 acres farm, at the entrance we drove between huge buttonwood trees lining the drive. Henry adored and nurtured trees and naturalized wildflowers. Visitors enjoy one-hour guided tours, which begin every fifteen minutes from 10 – 5 daily except Mondays. Our guide, Lisa Crawford, was so knowledgeable and gave a fascinating and informative tour of this large and unusual castle, which itself is a work of art. The first place on the tour was the garage, although Henry had no cars nor carriages, but the building is the meeting place for naturalist groups, which would greatly please Mercer.

Henry’s wealth was inherited from his aunt Elizabeth Chapman Lawrence when he was 51 years old, and he spent four years building this home, truly a castle. We entered through a dark room just before the lighter, larger room, which Mercer intended to intensify one’s visual impression of the carved cement decorations which mimic the hand-made tiles in other rooms and is reminiscent of his travels to the Yucatan of Mexico where he loved the natural tunnels. This began our amazing tour where Lisa explained the many collections and the history and intention of each unique room, all decorated with beautiful tiles from his factory.

Henry had 6,000 books and said he had studied all of them to create his buildings and his clay tiles, which have ceramic relief decoration, depicting history, mythology, legends, and scenes of many places. He was influenced by the stove plates in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the Moravian Seminary and created the molds for his tiles having learned the techniques.  Mr. Mercer spoke English, Greek, Latin, Italian and French, and drew from each of these cultures. Before the castle was built he constructed clay models of each of the 44 rooms and then fitted them together like a 3-D puzzle.

It required ten to twelve men every day to build the Castle, working for $1.75 a day wages. Lucy, the beloved horse was a vital member of the workforce, and she was also paid $1.75 a day! The second Lucy is commemorated in a weathervane on top of one of the wings of the Castle. There are 200 windows, 66 keyed doors, 32 stairs, 18 fireplaces, heat ducts, and 10 bathrooms. It is all cement with also a fireproof roof. The castle incorporates the poetry of the past with inventiveness of the time in which it was built. It required four years to build, and Henry moved into his castle in 1912. He had used the natural spring near his castle to provide water for the cisterns on his home.

His housekeeper Mrs. Swain lived in the castle for many years to serve during his life, and at his death he bequeathed the Castle to her and her husband who had worked in his tile factory. At their death the Castle became a landmark owned by Doylestown. His greatness is remembered through his philanthropy to his beloved Doylestown and through his unique buildings and ideas. We highly recommend a trip to this beautiful Burrough in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.