Tuesday, February 11, 2014

BIG OLD HOUSES: Something Completely Different

BIG OLD HOUSES: Something Completely Different
by John Foreman

"And now ..." if I may crib a 43-year-old line from Monty Python, " ... for something completely different." My old car, purring like a kitten these days, recently took me to Bethlehem, PA. I spent the night with my daughter and son-in-law, admired the baby, and continued the next day to Fonthill Castle in Doylestown, PA.
What appears to be the gingerbread palace of an enchanted prince is not far from the facts.
The builder of Fonthill, Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930), seen in the photo below embracing his dog Rollo, has the look of a "good little boy," which I don't think he was. Like myself, his middle name was his mother's before her marriage. The Chapmans and the Mercers were both prosperous — indeed, prominent — families, although Mercer's own father William, according to the Bucks County Historical Society, was "well bred, but without means." A rich aunt, Elizabeth (Lela) Chapman Lawrence (1829-1905), underwrote young Mercer's education, took him all over Europe, even built a substantial house, called Aldie, for his mother in Doylestown.
Fonthill, completed in 1912 when Mercer was 56 years old, engulfs an earlier structure. Crouched behind the triple arches in the image below is what used to be a free standing Pennsylvania Dutch farmhouse dating from 1742.
Fonthill, seen below from the south, is a National Historic Landmark, called by some "An Architectural Treasure." Its unorthodox design and construction methods, however, led one contemporary critic to wonder whether its owner risked "being responsible for a house which might terrorize the whole neighborhood." What looks like a distant wing on the far right is actually a separate garage, built in 1913.
This house is a fantastic object, but I wouldn't classify it as a work of "architecture," partly because there was no architect. Mercer himself designed the thing, one room at a time, molding each of those rooms from blocks of clay (really), which he then stacked in a pile with little regard to interior traffic patterns or exterior appearance. Fortunately, the result is picturesque, albeit unlivable for all but a few. Except for the farmhouse contained within its eccentric embrace, Fonthill is constructed entirely of reinforced poured concrete, not be the warmest of building materials, although the exterior gestalt is undeniably appealing.
Lucy the horse played a bit part in the production, which we shall get to in time.
The front door is on the east facade, facing the entrance allee.
Let's pause in the foyer — or what approximates a foyer — for a (very) few words about the long and distinguished career of Henry Chapman Mercer. Harvard 1879; admitted to the Philadelphia bar in 1881; then a career volte-face to archaeological exploration. Mercer, with the help of Aunt Lela, spelunked from Ohio to the Yucatan, eventually becoming the curator of American and Prehistoric Archaeoloigy at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1897 he started the company that would make him, for a time anyway, nationally famous. The Moravian Pottery and Tile Works of Doylestown, PA used a unique process to glaze and colorize so-called Mercer Tiles, whose historical designs and craftsmanlike appearance made them the ceramic darlings of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Arts and Crafts was a reaction to the late 19th century's soulless industrialization. Its proponents, "limousine liberals" in the minds of many at the time, plunged into a mindset of handmade anything, in lieu of goods, implements, furniture, you name it, produced industrially. One of the problems with Arts and Crafts was that only rich people could really afford the best of it. Its biggest problem, however, afflicts design work to this day, specifically work that is principally informed by intellect as opposed to appearance. Buildings whose ugliness is explained by some crackpot intellectual thesis as "referencing" something or other, are nothing new. That which architects and/or designers find symbolic or amusing often never occurs to the suffering public, who must endure wretched looking buildings until they either fall down or are demolished. But ... I digress.
Mercer's Moravian Pottery hit the big time in 1901, when Isabella Stewart Gardner installed medieval-style flooring made entirely of Mercer tiles in her famous Boston mansion. Business was good before and booming after, but it wasn't until rich Aunt Lela died in 1905, and her will was settled in 1907, that Mercer inherited money sufficient to build Fonthill. From the start, the house was intended as a combination personal residence, giant catalogue of Moravian Tile products, and museum of tiles from around the world. It is, in fact, encrusted with tiles.
The main room on the main floor, called the Saloon, is one of several dramatic double-height chambers whose intended use and location could only perplex a Beaux Arts graduate. Big dinners were served in it during Fonthill's early years, despite the fact that it's nowhere near the kitchen. Then again, there is no designated dining room anywhere else, so why not eat here? Mercer possessed a sort of Bedouin mentality at mealtime, food being served wherever he happened to be.
The Saloon connects to the Morning Room, located at the southern end of the house. Tiles, tiles, more tiles, more structural columns, bewildering staircases, and a settee in its own little niche repeat an aesthetic theme seen throughout the house. Mercer's background in pottery presumably explains the decision to design rooms with blocks of clay.
I have been in many big old houses, and I'm one of those guys who never gets lost, but this place really had me foxed. In the images below we're traveling from the Saloon, across the not very well defined Entry Hall, to the Conservatory. Plans for the first four of Fonthill's interlocking levels appear at the end of this post.
A nice room for plants, if that's indeed how it was used. There are stories about the tiles in every room in the house, but we'll just glance and keep moving.
Let's recross the Entry Hall and head north into the serving pantry. For reasons unknown this room is labeled Front Kitchen. In the Back Kitchen beyond it, which of course is just the kitchen, the ceiling has been blown out to create another double-height space. What was originally a second floor fireplace hovers on the wall above the stove.
Fonthill's live-in staff had rooms on the upper levels of the north wing. Beneath those rooms, adjacent to the kitchen is one of the more elaborate servant halls I've seen. It's called the Oven Room, a reference to an antique stove that once heated it. It's once again a staff lounge.
Besides results of a lot of experimental concrete pouring, the basement contains a crypt — because every castle needs a crypt.
Without Mr. Eichenburger's excellent plans, I would have been quite unable to correctly locate the rooms in these photos. Of course, my helpful guide Dan knew Fonthill like I know Daheim. The powder room, an obligatory inclusion in every Big Old Houses post, is just outside the Library.
The Library connects to the Saloon, from which I climbed a flight of stairs, the location of which I've completely forgot, and arrived shortly at a 3rd level guest bedroom called the Yellow Room. Would that I had brought crumbs with me from the morning's breakfast muffin.
The Yellow Room and the adjoining West Room, each with en suite bath, are situated directly above the Library.
A corridor on the south flank of the house traverses the Map Room en route to Mercer's Study, another double-height chamber sitting on top of the Morning Room below.
Honestly, I don't have much of an Arts and Crafts sensibility.
Mercer's bedroom, called the Dormer Room and seen in the images below, is, with unexpected logic, located next to his Study. A decade after moving in, the lord of Fonthill migrated from the Dormer Room to the Terrace Room, located one level up on the other side of the house. A lifelong retainer by the name of Frank Swain (1876-1954), whom Mercer hired at the age of 20 to help on archaeological digs and eventually became head of Moravian Tile, lived with his employer at Fonthill. Also living in the house was Mercer's housekeeper Laura, who also happened to be Swain's wife. When Mercer moved from Dormer to Terrace, Swain moved from Marine to Dormer. Meanwhile, Laura, on an hegira of her (searching for light and warmth perhaps) slept first in Pine before ending up in East.
Mercer never married and the mysterious intersection of stairways in the hall below might be a metaphor for who was actually sleeping with whom. The honorable state of bachelorhood, recognized for centuries before our own, now raises eyebrows. So here is a good place to address the enchantment we joked about at the beginning of this post. It's really no joke, however; poor Henry Mercer suffered from gonorrhea, an unhappy thing today but a real curse in the past. Who knows how he got it, or from whom. Alas, this dark family secret likely torpedoed his rumored engagement to the debutante daughter of a Baltimore socialite named Gustave Lurman. At least, that's one explanation.
At the other end of the 3rd level hall is a stair to the Columbus Room, named for its themed tiles.
Who was Rollo? The dog. What is the Wind Room to which these stairs lead? I dunno, but it's the last stop before the roof, from which there's an astonishing view of, among other things, the rest of the roof.
Let's take the stairs down and visit the Terrace Room on 4, where Mercer spent his last years.
Where was this staircase? I have absolutely no idea.
The East Room on the 4th level was Laura Swain's. Mercer's will gave Fonthill to Bucks County, subject to a life tenancy by the Swains. Laura outlived her husband by 20 years, staying at Fonthill until overcome by age and decrepitude, a fate that shadows us all. She was moved to a nursing home in late 1974, and died a few months later.
A creepy passage (let's be frank) runs north from the hall on 3 to the servants' wing. It passes what used to be an exterior window overlooking what used to be the second floor of the farmhouse, and is now the upper level of the kitchen. Beyond are former servants' rooms.
Everyone who worked on the construction of Fonthill, including Lucy the horse, is commemorated in (what else?) Mercer tiles mounted on a wall in the servants' wing.
Also on 3, placed oddly in the servants' wing, is a Smoking Room, next to which is the even more bewilderingly located Breakfast Room.
According to "Henry Chapman Mercer; An Annotated Chronology" published by the Bucks County Historical Society (of which Mercer, incidentally, was president), his "pro-German sentiments during World War I were misunderstood by some. True to the standards of the Victorian era of his youth, he found much to criticize about the modern age — women's hair and dress styles, the training and manners of the young, the novels of Hemingway ..." In other words, he turned into a curmudgeon, another threat that shadows us all.
Doylestown's "Mercer Mile" contains not just Fonthill, but the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, seen in the image below, where you can still buy a floor, a backsplash or a fireplace, and the fantastical looking Mercer Museum. The latter was designed in 1916 with the same poured concrete look, and is filled with early American tools and artifacts. Is Fonthill beautiful? No. Did I have fun climbing all over it? You bet I did. The link, for castle and museum both, is www.mercermuseum.org.
Floor plans courtesy of Kurt Eichenburger, a puzzle master as well as a draftsman.
Vintage images courtesy Sleepy Hollow Country Club. Visit John Foreman's Big Old Houses.
Contact John Foreman here
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