History's Headlines: Bonds for Books

 

Describing Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) is not easy. Was he an academic? Was he an archeologist? Was he a tile maker? Or was he just odd? In fact, 89 years after his death, Mercer is recognized as a little bit of all those things, and also quite possibly a genius. Convinced that industrialization was destroying America's crafts and handmade items, he became an avid collector of and advocate for their preservation. The result of Mercer's passion was three unique structures in his native Bucks County: his home, Fonthill, as well as the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works and the Mercer Museum, which are almost as famous for their distinctive, poured-concrete structure as they are for the items they house. Henry Ford called the Mercer Museum "the only museum in America worth visiting," and used it as a model for his own museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Born into comfortable old money in Doylestown, Henry Mercer's father was a commissioned Navy officer with a deep interest in horticulture and history. His mother was a painter. Mercer was a shy child. The most significant person in his early life was his aunt, Elizabeth Lawrence, known in his family as Aunt Lela. Outgoing and prominent socially, among her close friends was author/historian Henry Adams, who included a character in one of his novels "Democracy" based on her. "Aunt Lela was a whirlwind who swept Mercer into social life and powerfully fed his sense of self, something he'd need where he was headed in life," notes one biographer.

Mercer graduated from Harvard but switched his major from law to art and architecture. One of his art professors was Charles Eliot Norton, recognized as a leader in his field. Mercer did graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and was admitted to the bar but never practiced law. In 1881 Mercer began what became a 9-year tour of Germany and France. Mercer had family roots in Germany, where he became deeply influenced by the folk art and culture. He was also an archeologist. On his return to America in the early 1890s he was named curator of American and Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Mercer was recognized as a scholar who as an archeologist conducted site excavations in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico and the Ohio, Delaware and Tennessee River valleys. At his death in 1930 the Morning Call would include an editorial about Mercer's frequent "digs" in the Lehigh Valley at South Mountain for Native American artifacts alongside local archeologist A. H. Berlin. It was headlined, "Death of Archeologist Who Knew Lehigh Well."

But Mercer soon ran afoul of the academic orthodoxy of his day. His interests in pottery and particularly Pennsylvania-German Moravian items, dismissed derisively by some of his colleagues as "pots and pans," were considered not where a curator should be devoting his time. Trowels could be useful to unearth artifacts from ancient civilizations but to collect hundreds of them was just not done. Mercer, who did not suffer fools gladly, had little tolerance for those he placed in that category.

In 1898, after he left the museum, Mercer apprenticed himself to a Pennsylvania German potter and created the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, which he ran from 1898 to 1930. The unique poured-concrete building that houses it today was designed by Mercer in 1912. It is currently run by the Bucks County Department of Parks and Recreation. Among the diverse buildings that include Mercer tiles are the Pennsylvania State Capitol, the John D. Rockefeller family estate Kykuit at Pocantico Hills, N.Y., Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood and the Monte Carlo Casino on the French Rivera. They are also in many homes.

Even before he left the museum, Mercer had a theory that he called "archeology turned upside down." Rather than beginning deep in the ancient past, he wanted to study relatively recent times. One of Mercer's favorite pastimes was collecting old fashioned tools that had been made obsolete by industrialization. They "give us a fresh grasp upon the vitality of the American beginning," he said. "At first illustrating a humble story, they unfold by degrees a wider meaning until at last the heart is touched." Mercer also wanted to understand how these obsolete tools were used. Afraid that "so beautiful an art as that of the old Pennsylvania German potter should perish before our eyes," was his reason for becoming a leading ceramicist. In 1911 Mercer told a lecture audience, "this survival in our midst, of an ancient art with a brilliant history reaching back to the beginning of civilization has changed the course of my life."

Mercer's first poured concreate structure was his home, Fonthill. Completed in 1904 on 60 acres of land in Doylestown Township, it has 44 rooms, 10 bathrooms, five bedrooms, roughly 32 stairwells and 18 fireplaces. Mercer was horrified at the dark rooms of the Victorian houses of his youth. He gave Fonthill 200 windows and added generous use of his own tiles. Although he admired craftsmanship from the past, Mercer's home had several surprisingly modern touches. Among them was a Otis elevator, and an intercom buzzer system and phones to communicate within the house. Mercer added more than 900 prints from his collection and family portraits. His prize possession was one of Aunt Lela.

At a time when architects like McKim, Mead & White were creating imitation Renaissance Venetian palazzos with plumbing for their multi-millionaire clients, Mercer's poured-concrete, castle-like home was considered beyond bizarre. But it suited Mercer and made a statement. And at a cost of $32,482 it was perfect for him. Although he never married Mercer shared Fonthill with his business partner Frank Swain and his wife until they both died.

Mercer launched his last major project- the Mercer Museum- in 1913 and completed it in 1916. Like his previous creations, it was of poured-concrete. Mercer began the project with eight-day laborers and "Lucy" the horse. He was both architect and builder of the 17,000 square foot, seven-story museum. It was here that Mercer put on display his huge collection of artifacts. Tools, wagons, row boats and other items that most people had no idea what they were used for were included. And Mercer's ideas for placement of objects (some hanging from the ceiling) and categorizing them, while perfectly logical to him, was confusing to many. Still Mercer had a system and decided that was that.

Mercer had other intellectual and social interests. He was fond of animals, birds in particular. The feathered hats that women wore in the late 19th and early 20th century were responsible for the death of many birds. He became an active opponent of what was called the Plume Trade and supported laws to ban bird hunting for hats.

Gradually by the early 1920s Mercer began to be recognized as an authority in his field that finally was recognized with having academic respectability. His books, "Ancient Carpenters' Tools" and "The Bible in Iron," have been constantly reprinted and are still regarded as pioneering works in the field. But Mercer still was still known for his strong stand on controversial issues. During World War I, when he had both friends and family in Germany, he strongly opposed America's entry into the war on the Allied side. The popular anti-German hysteria of the era often made him a target. Mercer went on working on his projects until his death on March 9, 1930. Today his much-visited Bucks County creations, Fonthill, the Mercer Museum and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, remain as a monument to his pioneering spirit and creative mind.