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
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
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
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
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
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