"Building Henry Mercer's Fonthill - 1908-1912"
One hundred years ago Henry Chapman Mercer designed and built Fonthill, his "Castle for the New World" in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. This exhibit explores Fonthill's planning and construction in period images, text and Mercer's own words.
A Very Beautiful Property
Mercer acquired the property for his dream house while vacationing in New England in 1907, and began planning for its construction almost immediately. After purchasing the several tracts of land necessary, he wrote his Tile Works manager from a Boston hotel, "I think the whole thing comprises a very beautiful property, with these splendid springs commanding [an] outlook and the finest air with a very beautiful grove. The thing is extremely near to the town, within reach of everything, out of reach of injury by trolley or railroad and available for a final resting-place for the Pottery, if necessary..."
Incorporating the Past
The land on which Mercer would build Fonthill was not vacant. He decided to preserve a farmhouse near the center of the property by incorporating it into his new residence. A barn would eventually be torn down but the stonework serve as the foundation for a garage and "Terrace Pavilion." Another small farmhouse in a wooded area was eventually outfitted as a meeting place for the Doylestown Nature Club. This view looks across the roofline of the "farmhouse" section of Fonthill, toward the "annex" under construction, and the still-standing barn in the background.
Joining Past and Present
Throughout Fonthill, Mercer joined old and new in a creative blending of ingredients. Most dramatically, he wedded the traditional, romantic architecture of the castle to the modern medium of concrete. To his interiors, celebrating the past, he would add the conveniences of modernity: plumbing, electricity, a lift, an intercom system, and central heat. This photograph symbolizes Mercer's connecting of old and new, with the original farmhouse at left linked to the main section of his "Castle for the New World" rising at right.
Planning the House
"The house was planned…by me," wrote Mercer, "room by room, entirely from the interior, the exterior not being considered until all the rooms had been imagined and sketched, after which blocks of clay representing the rooms were piled on a table, set together and modeled into a general outline. After a good many changes in the profile of tower, roofs, etc., a plaster-of-Paris model was made to scale, and used till the building was completed."
"The plan of the whole house was an interweaving of my own fancies blending with memories of my travels and suggestions from several engravings," explained Mercer. Versions of Gerard Dow's The Dutch Housekeeper (left) and Rembrandt's The Philosopher in Contemplation (right) were two such prints that inspired elements of Fonthill's interiors. Print sources suggested such elements as ceiling treatments, door and stair arrangements, window placement, and the overall play of light and shadow.
Realizing His Dreams
This image of the Fonthill's largest room under construction recalls Mercer's later recollection that "the first interior imagined and clearly seen [in my mind] was that of the west side of the Saloon…The arrangement of rooms at different levels...over the gallery in the Saloon is a memory of a Turkish house seen by me from the rear garden in Salonica in 1886. The Saloon...retains the appearance of these preliminary dreams..."
Looking back on Fonthill's construction, Mercer later recalled that "cement mixers were not then in general use. All the cement was mixed by hand in the proportions of Portland Cement 1 part, yellow sand (called Jersey gravel), 2 1/2 parts, and bluish crushed trap from the crushed stone works at Rockhill Station, south of Quakertown, Bucks County, Pa., 5 parts." In fact, the varied and often coarse texture of the concrete produced by this mixture and achieved by means of rough board forms, limited spading or tamping of the mixture inside the forms, and other techniques, was pleasing to Mercer. As a proponent of letting natural materials speak for themselves, he made no effort to conceal the character of his building material. The varying textures of concrete are visible across the interior surfaces in this photograph.
"The columns intended to support roof-slopes and upper story partitions rise from the cellar to the housetop through several rooms without symmetrical arrangement," explained Mercer. "Their forms were made by boards set vertically and held together in circles with rope and wire or in squares with battens. Each was reinforced with three vertical pipes and wire circles twisted by hand and dropped down the forms about two feet apart as the work went on..." The vertical boards that created the form or mold for a column are still in place in this image.
As Mercer sketched it in his construction notebook, "vault forms were made of heaps of earth spread over piles of boxes and overlaid…with sand, producing a series of carefully graded mounds resting…on platforms." Over these mounds and platforms, and in between the columns supporting the structure, Mercer's workmen poured hand-mixed batches of concrete, producing both the vaulted ceiling of the room below and the floor of the room above.
In rooms to be decorated with tiled ceilings, the tiles were laid upside down in the top layer of sand on the graded mound before concrete was poured to create the vault. A contemporary writer described the entire process in detail: "The construction of the library ceiling is typical...with the position and forms for the columns established, a rude platform was erected, the lumber comprising any convenient waste material, such as old rails, posts and boards. Over these were placed garden weeds, grass, or hay, and upon the latter, a layer of earth for the workmen to walk upon. The spring of the arch was determined by bending a long pliable strip of wood from column to column. Underneath...were placed empty boxes and other waste material light in weight but taking up space. On top of this...was placed another layer of earth spaded to arch form and upon this a layer of sand nicely graded. The tiles were laid...upside down, and over the entire mass...wire mesh and pipes and then the wet concrete was poured over the whole." This view of the Library shows the ceiling tiles in place and more tiles being set in the capitals of the columns.
"No Bad Results"
Mercer was concerned that the weight of the tiles might cause the completed concrete and tile ceilings to sag under the strain, especially in heavily embellished rooms like the Columbus Room (seen here), "but no such bad results followed."
"When we pulled out the platform props," he wrote, "the platforms collapsed and tons of earth and sand fell, exposing the tiles, after which the loose sand was washed off with a hose and then dry brushed and shellaced between the tiles."
Most of the eight to ten workmen who Mercer employed at Fonthill at any one time were, he claimed, "unskilled day laborers" paid at a wage of $1.75 a day. One exception was Mercer's Moravian Pottery and Tile Works employee, Jacob Frank, who was charged with setting all of the tile in Fonthill. This detail shows Frank at work placing tile upside down in carefully graded sand, in preparation for pouring one of Fonthill's flat ceilings during construction.
Board Forms for Concrete
"Several demolished buildings, followed by car loads of unplaned boards, furnished the wooden material for the forms," wrote Mercer. "These consisted of partitions made by laying the boards horizontally, edge to edge one upon another, with battens nailed wherever convenient against their outer sides. Double lengths of wire were looped around and twisted upon the projecting ends of these battens as we proceeded to keep the forms from bulging." In this exterior view of Fonthill under construction, board forms are in place around the top of the structure's walls, ready for concrete to be poured, while extra form lumber, or the debris from previous pours, is piled around the base of the building.
A Horse Named Lucy
An important member of the workforce, in addition to the human laborers, was Lucy the horse. Owned by Patrick Trainor, Mercer's foreman, Lucy powered the hoist, which raised concrete and other building materials as the walls of the building rose higher. Mercer commemorated Lucy's three-year role in Fonthill's construction by mounting an iron weathervane of the hard-working animal in silhouette on his completed castle.
To prevent dampness, Mercer created hollow spaces inside Fonthill's walls "by means of collapsible wooden boxes..., stove pipes filled with dry sand, pulled upward as we proceeded, and even corn stalks wrapped in paper…The cornstalk plan was, however, a failure as the leaves flew in all directions into the forms and the wet stalks would not burn out of the holes."
Built from the Inside
"The house…was built from the inside," claimed Mercer, "…to be used first and looked at afterwards...The establishment of the height of the walls, shape of the windows, roof-lines, steeples, chimneys, etc. were finishing touches. The construction was nowhere concealed. From first to last I tried to follow the precept of the architect Pugin: 'Decorate construction but never construct decoration.' So little was outside appearance considered that we remained in doubt and some fear as to the final result till the forms were removed. The flat towered roof and 'Jersey Terrace' were afterthoughts. When the covering of woodwork finally disappeared the general outlines from the east seemed disappointing and out of proportion, but seen from the west the building realized the literary and artistic dreams and memories of travel which had inspired its construction."
In completing his castle Mercer gave credit to all who had a hand in its construction. In the ceiling of one of the building's hallways, in tile lettering, he inscribed the names of those who designed, built and set the tile during the period 1908-1912. The text of Mercer's "credit label" for his home reads: "Here see the names of the men who planned this house, directed its plan, executed its construction, adorned its walls, embellished its pavements, built it with their labor, and the horse who uplifted it with its strength. Henry Mercer planned. Patrick Trainor directed. John Trainor executed. Jacob Frank adorned. Hermann Sell embellished. Lucy uplifted. John Alexander, Adolph Bregan, Hiram Carr, Charles Eveland, Harry Gordon, Louis Fonash, Howard Firman, Daniel Halsey, Joseph Harton, John Heath, Edward Hoffman, Scott Case, Abram Keller, Eugene Kramer, Harry Kling, Silas McIntosh, Valentine Prock, Harry Rush, Thomas Redmond, Frank Smith."
The Last Word
NON DOMO DOMINUS SED DOMINO DOMUS -"Not the master for the house but the house for the master"