If you don’t know it is there, driving past the Fonthill in Doylestown, Pa., becomes one of those double take moments in life. “What the ______ (fill it in with your own vernacular)” is a common reaction, for set amidst normal neighborhoods, on normal roads, is a 44 room reinforced concrete castle. Yes, that’s right, a castle. Although lacking the defenses to repel Viking marauders, it makes up for that shortcoming with more modern amenities such as 10 bathrooms, 5 bedrooms, and an elevator, as well as a multitude of fireplaces and chimneys.
The Fonthill was built in 1908-1912 as the residence of Henry Chapman Mercer. The sixty acres on which it sits are also the home to a number of out buildings as well as the renowned Moravian Tile Works. The Fonthill was one of three rather different concrete structures built by Mercer in Doylestown. The aforementioned Tile Works being one and the incredible Mercer Museum, a mile away, being the other. All are worth your time, and each is unique and more than a bit odd in their own right. In terms of intended usage, the Fonthill was built as Mercer’s home, the Tileworks was built to preserve the art of tile making in the face of mechanized production, and the Mercer Museum was built to preserve the tools of America’s past before they disappeared forever.
To even begin to understand the buildings it is necessary to begin to understand a bit about Henry Mercer. Born in 1856, Mercer was Harvard educated and studied law at the University of Pennsylvania. However, his true interest lay in history and archeology and that is where his efforts were expended and where his legacy was left. His negative reactions to the rapid industrialization of the country fit in with the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century. While much of the nation was building new machinery, Mercer was busy collecting that which had been discarded. He recognized that the preservation of the past involved more than sticking relics in display cases but extended to techniques, trades and thought processes.
In that way, the Fonthill served as residence, as a showplace for his tiles, and as a physical testament to the value of individual craftsmanship and skill. The seemingly random combination of Gothic, Medieval, and Byzantine styles work surprisingly well together and the red tile roofing and spectacular windows combine to add a mystical enchantment to the structure. Today, the building is run as a museum by the Bucks County Historical Society and is a designated National Landmark. In addition to the tiles that adorn the floors and walls, the Fonthill houses over 6,000 books and 900 prints. Considering the size of the collection, perhaps it is a good thing that the ghost of Henry Mercer’s housekeeper is reputed to have been seen on numerous occasions dusting and straightening things up.