Sunday, May 31, 2015

Crazy Character from Doylestown

     We spent the weekend in Doylestown, Pa., county seat of Bucks County, a prosperous and culturally rich area located along the Delaware River north of Philadelphia.

Vest-pocket park next to the Historical Society
      We stayed in a bed & breakfast next to the Doylestown Historical Society, and we spent two days tootling around town looking at historic buildings, sampling a few of its myriad restaurants, and meandering through a couple of its pretty parks.

     Doylestown is the hometown of writer James Michener, who graduated from Doylestown High School in 1925, before going on to Swarthmore College and then fame and fortune as author of Tales of the South Pacific -- made into the movie South Pacific -- along with Centennial, The Source, Hawaii, Chesapeake, and a couple dozen other mammoth historical novels.

     (How many Michener books have you read? I've done Chesapeake, Poland, The Convenant. I started a couple of others but never got through them. Now that I'm retired, maybe I'll try another one!)

Moravian Pottery and Tile Works
     Doylestown was also home to anthropologist Margaret Mead, who grew up there, and writer Pearl S. Buck, author of the 1936 bestseller The Good Earth, who lived there when she wasn't traveling or residing in China.

     Other luminaries who have lived in Doylestown include authors Dorothy Parker and S. J. Perelman, and musicians George S. Kaufman, Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim . . . as well as the contemporary singer Pink, born as Alecia Moore in Doylestown in 1979.

     But the most amazing character we found from Doylestown -- the most idiosyncratic anyway -- was a man named Henry Chapman Mercer (1856 - 1930).

Interior of the Tile Works
     Mercer was the son of a wealthy Pennsylvania family. He studied law, but never practiced, as he found he was more interested in history and archeology than the details of legal precedents. He was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s and came to believe that American society was being destroyed by modern industrialism.

     Mercer traveled through Europe studying historical sites; he took a job as a museum curator in Philadelphia; he researched ancient tool-making and apprenticed himself to an old Pennsylvania potter. He was also a co-founder of the Doylestown Historical Society.

     Then 1898 he founded the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, where he produced handmade clay tiles that soon became very popular. They were used to decorate buildings from the Rockefeller estate in New York to the Pennsylvania Capitol Building in Harrisburg to a theater in Hollywood.

A Moravian tile
     Mercer constructed a factory made entirely of concrete, to house his work spaces and kilns, and the factory is now an historic building on the Mercer estate in Doylestown. Nearby, on the same grounds, he built  a mansion called Fonthill, also made entirely of concrete, and then about a mile away, in downtown Doylestown, he put up the Mercer Museum to house his collection of handmade tiles, ancient tools and other artifacts.

     The three buildings are now all open as historic monuments in Doylestown. They are not the most attractive structures, but they certainly are sturdy -- and the subject of a lot of curious conversation among residents and visitors alike.

The Mercer Museum in downtown Doylestown
     So why are the buildings, up to and including the roofs, made entirely of concrete? Mercer settled on the material, so the story goes, because the Great Boston Fire of 1872 destroyed his aunt's prized collection of medieval armor. He couldn't abide the thought of his own collections suffering the same fate, so he landed on concrete as the perfect fireproof material.

     At first, the people of Doylestown made fun of his buildings. But to prove his point, Mercer lit a bonfire on the roof of his mansion to demonstrate that the place was indeed impervious to fire. After that, people began to appreciate the artistry -- and the employment opportunities -- brought to this small Pennsylvania town by the idiosyncratic offspring of a wealthy American family.

     You could almost write a novel, or a musical, about it. Don't you think?


DJan said...

I never heard of Mercer and his concrete buildings. Very interesting, Tom. I am also surprised at all the luminaries who lived in that town over the years. :-)

Anonymous said...

Never heard of Mercer, but do recognize Michener, Mead, Buck, Sondheim, etc. Must have been the magical air and water that produced such luminaries.

Snowbrush said...

So very much has been to fires? My wife would have loved to have gone along on your trip as she's somewhat of a collector of tiles.

Anonymous said...

Wow, fabulous place. I love Moravian pottery. And the tiles are wonderful.

Read all of Michener's books as he published them, beginning in the 1950s. Used my allowance to buy them and still have them, although they are deteriorating (printed on the crap paper from the post war years).

He may have been born in PA but he spent most of his life after WWII in Texas. His stories are based on his experiences with the Navy in the Pacific. Many of them were made into films starring top actors like Marlon Brando and William Holden.

He married a Japanese woman he met while in the Navy. Hence Sayonara is somewhat autobiographical. And he amassed a fabulous collection Japanese prints (I have his book of Japanese prints).

When he died, he e donated most if not all of his prints to the University of Texas, where he taught English for many years. Fabulous man.

CuriousBob said...

Very interesting article and great pictures. I do remember a TV show when I was growing up called Adventures in Paradise it was a weekly that aired from 1959 to 1962 this TV program was based on one of James Michener's books starring an actor Gardner McKay in the lead role. Glad you enjoyed your trip.

Barbara said...

Very interesting post. Never heard about this guy or these tiles. Love learning something new. Love James Michener too. Read quite a few of his books. Long but full of detail. If you've got the time, he's got the info.