TRAVEL: Mercer Mile in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, offers look into history

TRAVEL: Mercer Mile in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, offers look into history

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Thanks to its trio of museums gifted to the community by native son Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) Doylestown, Pennsylvania, offers country charm, culture, and history. Mercer was a world traveler, collector, documentarian and storyteller who is also often credited with “making history live.”

Today, Mercer’s three museums, all National Historic Landmarks, are known collectively as the “Mercer Mile.” Inviting inns make the Mercer Mile a destination not only for culture but also history and dining.

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Moravian Pottery and Tile Works

130 Swamp Rd.

Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 18901

215/348-6098

Mercer, a well-known ceramicist and proponent of the Arts and Crafts Movement, wrote: “If tiles could tell no story, inspire or teach nobody, and only serve to produce aesthetic thrills, I would have stopped making them a long time ago.” Today, his Moravian Tile Works preserves decorative tiles and mosaics from the past.

New pieces are created according to Mercer’s techniques. Some of his tiles were inspired by symbolic motifs in cast-iron stove plates, while others drew upon inlaid medieval designs and literary themes. The Tile Works offers a factory tour to elucidate the process of crafting the handmade decorative tiles, and the gift shop presents pieces with nautical themes or designs from the natural world.

The facility also offers ceramic apprenticeships and tile workshops.

Fonthill Castle

525 E. Court St.

Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 18901

215/348-9461

The self-taught architect Mercer was also an anthropologist, archeologist and artist who, in the early 20th century, designed and built a home castle of fireproof, hand-mixed concrete, paying wages not only to the human workers, but to the horse, Lucy, for her role in hoisting concrete to the building’s upper levels.

The expansive Fonthill Castle offers surprises around each corner, as Mercer embedded the reinforced concrete edifice with ancient cuneiforms encased on a column, vaulted ceilings adorned with macabre scenes and tile murals that tell tales from his exotic world travels. Those journeys ranged from excursions on a houseboat in France and voyages on the Nile through Egypt to archeological excavations in the Yucatan.

A prolific author in his own right, Mercer placed over 6,000 titles in his home library. His collected covered a broad range of subjects encompassing everything from Scottish ballads, European folklore, horticultural texts and architectural volumes to publications about Islamic religion and philosophy.

Towers, terraces, and tiles of every variety are part of this magical castle, where Mercer entertained guests such as Alexander Calder, Henry DuPont and Isabella Stewart Gardiner.

The Mercer Museum

84 S. Pine St.

Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 18901

215/345-0210

Mercermuseum.org

Forgotten tools and artifacts of early, pre-industrial America were important to Mercer, who created a multilevel museum to house his own collection of apple cider press, baskets, brooms, vintage clocks and combs made from horn.

Permanent exhibits at The Mercer Museum allow the visitor to step into a general store from the 19th century stocked with boots, bottles and baking powder, or look upward to see an overhead display of a suspended whaling boat. American-crafted items from everyday life are augmented by the unexpected: a hangman’s gallows, hay wagon and even a “vampire-killing kit.”

Beyond the permanent collection of 40,000 objects, temporary exhibitions in a new wing of the museum display Shaker furniture — both decorative and utilitarian art — and a legacy of quilt history. The Mercer also hosts classes in basket weaving, book-signings and cooking demonstrations.

Doylestown Historical Society — Hargrave House

56 S. Main St.

Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 18901

Doylestownhistorical.org

Hargravehouse.net

At the Doylestown Historical Society, you will learn more local history thanks to exhibits, walking tours, lecture series and an online library of photos, documents and maps. The building stands adjacent to the Hargrave House, a well-appointed, historic bed & breakfast in downtown Doylestown.

But a short drive from Philadelphia, Doylestown is a vibrant place preserving its past while embracing the future.

Iris Brooks is a travel and arts writer who has explored all seven continents. Learn more about her and photographer Jon H. Davis at NLScreativemedia.com.