The Enduring Legacy of Henry Chapman Mercer

By Wendy Royalsummer 2009

Henry Chapman Mercer was born in 1856 to a wealthy Doylestown, Bucks County, family. One of Mercer's greatest influences was his Aunt Lela, Elizabeth Lawrence. As she exposed Henry to her life in society she instilled in him a great sense of self and independence.

After graduating from Harvard in 1879, Mercer studied law at the University of Pennsylvania but never pursued a career in the field. Instead, Mercer's interests turned to archaeology. He became the curator of American and Pre-Historic Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia from 1894 to 1897. His site excavations as an archaeologist led to his interest in "unearthing" what drove America before the Industrial Age. Mercer began collecting objects that he felt told the story of human achievement. He believed that studying the tools that people used in everyday life painted a picture of their progression.

While building his collection, Henry developed a special interest in the Pennsylvania German and Moravian settlers. He was particularly attracted to German pottery and Moravian tile work. By 1899, he was producing his own architectural tiles, for which he became famous.


When Henry Mercer was 52, he started construction on the first of three concrete structures. Fonthill was built on 60 acres of land in Doylestown Township, Bucks County, at a cost of $32,482.

By the time Fonthill was completed in 1904, his 44-room home included 10 bathrooms, five bedrooms, at least 32 stairwells and 18 fireplaces. Mercer's many travels took him to some of the world's castles, and it was from these visits that he decided that Fonthill was not going to suffer from the same dark interiors as those buildings. He included 200 windows in his plan to bring in plenty of natural light. He used his own tiles in the architecture as well as Persian, Spanish, Chinese, and Dutch tiles from his collection. Though Fonthill resembles a castle, it was very modern for its time. It was equipped with two dumbwaiters, an Otis Elevator and intercom buzzer system and phones to communicate within the house. Throughout the house are more than 900 prints from Mercer's extensive collection as well as portraits of his family members, including his favorite Aunt Lela.

Fonthill was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985 and has been featured on A&E's "America's Castles." In addition to the regular guided tours, families can take advantage of special "Tower Tours," as well as those designed especially for children.

Fonthill's Old-Fashioned Fourth of July Celebration takes place from noon until 5 p.m. on Independence Day. Step back in time and celebrate our nation's independence as though it was the turn of the 20th century. A 19th century baseball game, watermelon-eating contest, old-time games, live music and lots of delicious picnic foods will have you longing for simpler times.

Fonthill Museum
East Court Street & Route 313
Doylestown, PA 18901

Hours: Mondays - Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.;
Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.
Last tour begins at 4 p.m.
Guided tours only.

Reservations are strongly suggested.
Wear comfortable walking shoes.



The second concrete structure built by Henry Chapman Mercer was his Moravian Pottery & Tile Works, where he produced his famous Moravian-style tiles. Mercer was in charge of the tile works from 1898 until his death in 1930.

Mercer's original tiles can be found all over the world, including Rockefeller's New York estate, the Casino at Monte Carlo and Grauman's Chinese Theater. The largest single collection of Mercer tiles can be seen on the floor of the Pennsylvania State Capitol.

Today, the Moravian Pottery & Tile Works produces handmade tiles in a way very similar to the process developed by Henry Mercer. Tiles can be purchased from the tile shop or ordered from the catalog. In addition to regular tours, the facility offers workshops, classes, internships and apprenticeships.

Moravian Pottery & Tile Works
130 Swamp Road (Route 313)
Doylestown, PA 18901

Open Daily 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.
Last tour begins at 4 p.m.
Admission charged

Moravian Tile Shop:
Open daily 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.


Henry Mercer began construction of his third building in 1913 with the help of eight day laborers and "Lucy" the horse. The 17,000-square-foot, seven-story museum took three years to complete. Like the previous two building projects, the structure was built entirely of concrete reinforced with iron rods and mesh. Mercer was both builder and architect on the ambitious project designed to house his vast collection of early American everyday objects. Visitors will see everything from clock making tools to a whaling boat.

More than half of the museum's 40,000 artifacts are exhibited on six floors. It is very difficult to absorb everything because there is so much upon which to feast your eyes. Among the oldest artifacts in the museum are a whale oil lamp over 2,000 years old and Native American implements dating 6,000-8,000 years B.C.

The Mercer Museum offers a variety of programs for families, kids and school groups. Throughout the year, the museum hosts special events, workshops and summer camps for kids.

Mercer Museum
84 South Pine St.
Doylestown, PA 18901

Hours: Mondays - Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.;
Tuesdays, open until 9 p.m.;
Sundays, noon to 5 p.m.

Wear comfortable walking shoes.

Mercer's collection serves as a reminder of how far we have come and what life was like before everything was mass-produced off an assembly line.

After a severe illness, Henry Chapman Mercer died in 1930 at the age of 74. He was certainly a man destined to leave his mark. His impact lives on in his collections, his buildings and the spirit of ingenuity that fueled his accomplishments.

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