Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1809:
FONTHILL

by John H. Lienhard

Today, very personal architecture. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We've finally seen Henry Mercer's house and our heads are spinning. Mercer was a late-nineteenth-century anthropologist who clearly saw that the form and texture of the coming twentieth century would be radically different from anything before it. It was about to sweep the past away.

The Arts and Crafts Movement, which grew up around Mercer, struggled to retain the individual manual craftsmanship that was being replaced everywhere. Mercer's place in that movement is revealed by three large buildings in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

One is a great six-story museum where he preserved the vanishing technologies. One is a large kiln and workshop where he captured Moravian themes in ceramic tile. The third is the bizarre mansion that he called Fonthill.

Mercer had traveled the world and he'd been especially taken with medieval architecture. Between 1908 and 1910, he built this mansion, this castle, out of an imagination that'd been touched by Gothic style. It has 44 rooms and an indeterminate number of stories.

Once inside, you go from room to room, up a few stairs here, down a few there. You could live in it for months, and not yet know your way around the rabbit warren of surprise nooks, crannies, bedrooms, studies, sunrooms. The place has no axes of symmetry. It would be any child's delight — each trip from bedroom to break-fast table, a new adventure.

Gothic architecture had been made of stacked stones. But, while Mercer reacted against the twentieth century, he was fully in tune with modern technology. He made his castle entirely of hand-mixed concrete, steel-reinforced. He even cast much of the furniture in concrete — desks, bookcases, dressers. He worked without drawings and simply built from one part of the house to the next.

When he finished, he set great bonfires on the upper battlement. He did it to publicly boast that Fonthill was perfectly fireproof. In 1913, an architectural magazine did an article using Fonthill as the exemplar of personal architecture. We read that Fonthill is "a building which will stand ever as a monument to the individual tastes and beliefs of its builder."

Each gray concrete room has one element of décor — Mercer's tiles are embedded in every wall, every lintel, every beam. They give each room its own character. But, like the building itself, the tiles represent a wholly new technology. Mercer used old Moravian themes in his colorful tiles, but his means for making them had not existed in any past world.

As we leave Fonthill, my wife whispers, "I wouldn't want to live in it." Well, neither would I. The twentieth century brought with it terrible disorientation. So much rapid change! You could bob along like cork on a tidal wave, or you could try to exert some control. That's what Mercer did — and this is what he got.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


W. T. Taylor, Personal Architecture: The Evolution of an Idea in the House of H. C. Mercer, Esq.. Doylestown, PA. Architectural Record, Vol. XXXIII, No. III, March 1913, pp. 242-254.

See also: http://www.tiles.org/pages/mptw/mercer.htm


Fonthill
Henry Mercer's Fonthill (Photo by John Lienhard)


For interior images of Fonthill click on the following pictures from the Taylor source, above:
Sketch of a Fonthill Interior room and short staircase
The tiled vaulting and capitals of the Library ceiling
An alcove and stairway leading to the breakfast room
A tiled Russian stove in the breakfast room

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.