Henry Mercer (Also Wrote Fiction)

Mercer museum

Mercer Museum Doylestown PA
Photo by Richard Munger Photo

Doylestown, Pennsylvania, is Shangri-La to Bucks County residents—the county seat of art, culture, and government; epicenter of county history; and home to a wide array of restaurants. I’ve worked in Bucks County for twenty years, and the residents I know display pride in their town, to the point of braggadocio. I understand this, because I feel the same way about my hometown of Cape May, N.J. (Could there BE a cooler, more pleasant place to live with a more interesting history? NO.)

As the self-described Nerd Traveler (that’s the title of my 2021 collection of travel essays), I try to keep an open mind about places and do my best to learn about them. After a rendezvous at Doylestown’s Michener Museum with a friend where we took in a modern quilt exhibit and explored the museum’s permanent collection, I enjoyed his quick, custom tour of downtown D-town. It reminded me of a tour I would give of Cape May: history of the place entwined with place-based family history. My friend grew up near Doylestown but came here often. The independent bookstore, the location of the annual Christmas tree lighting, and the County (movie) Theater endowed the town with personality, and I became interested in this walkable place.

My explorations into Doylestown became more frequent as Covid-19 restrictions eased, and I became a board member of the Arts & Cultural Council of Bucks County and volunteered at their events. The flagship in-person exhibit of the first post-pandemic year centered around the Doylestown mythic figure of Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930). This renaissance Doylestownian studied archeology formally but had many interests including architecture. He built three reinforced concrete buildings that have drawn tourists and school groups on tours of their remarkable insides and grounds for decades. Artists flock here, too, because those buildings, interiors, and parklike grounds are extraordinary.

One of Mercer’s interests was tile. His Moravian Pottery and Tileworks still manufactures tiles which can be found throughout Mercer’s buildings and all over Pennsylvania. The first-floor fireplace in the A&C Council’s exhibit space in Freeman Hall is covered in flat, smooth Mercer mosaic tiles depicting the four seasons. The altar in Salem church across the street from Freeman Hall features brocade tiles, in 3D, representing Bible stories. The college at which I work acknowledges donations with recently made Mercer tiles depicting local animals on a wall of the Gateway Center. I’ll tell you more about Mercer’s tiles later.

On top of all of his other interests, Henry Mercer wrote fiction, in the form of gothic short stories. These pieces were probably terrifying when they were new, but today, anesthetized by our unsatiable appetite for scary, gory horror books and movies, Henry Mercer’s stories would seem quaint to most. I don’t read much horror, so if these stories are centered around tired, overused memes or tropes, I wouldn’t recognize them. White rats carrying cholera, morbid criminals, terrible turkey vultures, crystal gazing, shipwrecks, and castles form the bones of these stories, perfect for reading on a stormy evening. I found his November Night Tales compelling. I’ll share some impressions from my journal of these stories between the paragraphs that follow.

“Castle Valley” is thought to be autobiographical, at least with its characters and places. Although the names of people and places are changed, the locale could easily be identified as Doylestown-inspired. The protagonist, Charles Meredith, could easily be based on Henry C. Mercer, either purposely or because our storyteller was writing what he knew. From these firm foundations, the story veers into the supernatural when the characters find a scrying stone. I had to look that up, and it seems a person could gaze into this stone or crystal to gain knowledge. The story also features lightning, shipwrecks, fires, and Latin mottos. Today, visitors find artifacts in the Mercer Museum and Fonthill that could have been inspiration for supernatural passages and plot points in Mercer’s stories. A friend of mine remembers vampire killing kits from a visit to Mercer Museum twenty years ago.

By the time I stood under the Bucks County gallows, and before I realized what encased me, I was already fully fascinated by this eccentric man named Henry Chapman Mercer. His Mercer Museum, Fonthill Castle, and Moravian Tileworks provide a window into the mind of Mercer the author: what he felt was important to collect and preserve, what was imperative for his Doylestown, PA, existence, and what amused him.

Mercer Museum is a reinforced concrete building fronted by a modern reception area with a gallery, education room, and gift shop. One of the first artifacts on display is the concrete mixer used to create the concrete for the original concrete museum building. I remember vehicles: stagecoach, Conestoga wagon, whaling boat with harpoons, shay, hearse, sleigh, and dugout canoe. Many of these are displayed by hanging and speaking of hanging: those gallows! A sign warns potentially sensitive visitors that something ominous is displayed in the next room. Step in, and you’re under the floor of the gallows. One hinged piece of floor hangs open—how many alleged criminals fell to their death through that opening? Gallows in an old western are one thing, but imagining killers being killed this way right in Bucks County is positively chilling. I wonder if any were ancestors of people I know now? Would they tell me if their granduncle was hung for murdering another human? Probably not. It figures that Mercer, the author of the spooky, creepy horror stories in November Night Tales, would preserve the gallows.

As I’ve mentioned, Doylestown is the center of the universe for some people, including Henry Chapman Mercer. He lived here all of his life except when he was off exploring the world, pursuing an education, or digging up archeological artifacts. Once back in D-Town for good, he built his home, Fonthill Castle (1908-1912), Moravian Tileworks (1910-1912), and the seven-story Mercer Museum (1914-1916), all out of reinforced concrete, and all under his own direction. The concrete for Fonthill and the Tileworks was mixed by hand, but Mercer sprung for that mixer for the museum’s concrete.

As I read the supernatural stories in November Night Tales, I took notes. I wanted to remember the big picture of each, but I also wanted a record of the details I was likely to forget. I took the most notes for “The Sunken City,” a complex tale about a mining engineer who sets out to conduct archeological research in the fictional Bosnian province of Borsowitz. I’m sure it’s informed by Mercer’s archeological background. The storyboard rendition of this story would include the library of the monastery of the Franciscans of Ragusa, Count Seismo’s library, caves, mines, sandy beaches, and an imagined landscape of Epidaurus, the titular sunken city. As I read, I wondered which of these scenes would be most important to understanding “The Sunken City.” Would the notes I jotted down be crucial to understanding the story? Would the characters Count Seismo and the Volume 9, the librarian, the janitor, and Dr. Debaclo and his diving bell be important? All of these details made the story irresistible to me. It was like a big puzzle.

It is a confusing story and I’m not sure I have it all straight. This isn’t a shortcoming of the storyteller, but more likely the fault of my mind which kept going back to Fonthill when imagining the monastery library or other interior scenes.  This might have been my favorite story in the collection with its unexpected twists and turns and improbable ending. Mercer’s writing is strong enough to enable me to suspend disbelief through this wild ride of a tale, even through that ending.

Fonthill is popular with its arts-inclined visitors. Painters paint it, photographers shoot it, and ceramicists study the tiles displayed throughout. Mercer’s own tiles from the nearby Tileworks are embedded in the concrete floors, walls and ceilings, and tiles from Portugal, China, and Spain are displayed here, too, probably to inspire Mr. Mercer. There are tiled fireplaces throughout the castle, and some tell stories like the grisly tale of Bluebeard.

My favorite part of Fonthill, on the day I visited at least, were the desks. There was at least one desk in each of ten bedrooms, and multiple desks in the saloon. Our tour guide suggested that multiple desks and writing tables would accommodate any friends who came over to write. I respectfully disagree. Writers don’t often write in congress, do they? I think Mercer had multiple desks so that each of his projects could have its own space: a horror story in progress here, an archeological study with relevant reference tools there, an architectural mechanical drawing over there. Mercer was a brilliant Renaissance man, and I feel strongly that he would have had multiple projects going on at once. How do I know? I do that! There’s a survey of essays in my dining room, an essay about trees in my bedroom, and another essay about Brooklyn in my study. If I had as many desks and writing tables as H.C. Mercer, my projects currently stored in tote bags could have their own space.

His desks are all different, but many are tiled. Some are wooden. Some are built-in like the one Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women on (built by her father). I was amused to imagine him writing those November Night Tales at one of those desks by candlelight, warmed by a fire in a tile fireplace, and all of the spookiness of Fonthill and its grounds inspiring the Renaissance man’s inspiration. Perhaps he had more than one story going on at once, at multiple tables! A drawing of a white rat propped-up on this desk for inspiration here, a black turkey vulture there, and perhaps some castle illustrations in a book at that table for reference. Mercer included a crypt in the Fonthill plans, so you see I’m not exaggerating the spookiness factor!

The North Ferry Bridge” features disease-carrying white rodents in a town called Bridgenorth. I could easily imagine Bridgenorth as Doylestown, and I was relieved to know that the vermin, fictional or not, are probably not still scampering along the sidewalks of Doylestown/Bridgenorth. The reader is led to believe that the warehouse fire exterminated the rodents, but there’s always that chance...

After touring the Mercer Museum, I spent some time in its gift shop looking for books that would help me understand HCM better. Next to the glossy photo-filled books about the three Mercer buildings was a short booklet written by a man named Benjamin Barnes originally published by the Bucks County Historical Society in 1975. Barnes worked for Mercer from 1910 through 1930 when Mercer died. Barnes was trusted with Mercer’s vehicles (horse-drawn and automobile), important errands, and money. He helped move Mercer into Fonthill when it was ready (1910) and worked at the new U-shaped Tileworks which was completed in 1912. Barnes supplies details about the clay used for tiles (the red is from Doylestown, but the white is from Tuckahoe, N.J., in Cape May County!), and he lists some of the places where tiles could be seen: the Pennsylvania state capitol in Harrisburg, the Hotel Bethlehem, Doylestown High School (destroyed by fire in 1973), the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, every state of the union plus France, England, Canada, Egypt, and Bermuda. Except for the Hotel Bethlehem, I have not verified these locations, nor have I checked to see if the Mercer tiles are still there.

I had the opportunity to stay at the Hotel Bethlehem recently and made it a priority to find the Mercer floor tiles. I read that they were in the lobby, but then a Mercer tile expert told me they were in the restaurant. I made dinner reservations, but to my dismay I was seated in the more casual barroom, not atop the tiles! I tiptoed into the fancier restaurant the next morning to admire the 1925 tiles. They still look great in shades of brick red and brown and shined to a high gloss. But where is that big ecru ceramic Moravian star I saw in old photos? Oh no! There it is under that enormous potted plant. Henry Chapman Mercer would not be happy about that!

Benjamin Barnes wrote about famous people who visited Mercer’s renowned buildings including another Henry, Henry Ford, who borrowed ideas for his own museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Barnes also shares some of Mercer’s thoughtful gestures: when his employee, Frank Swain, married the Fonthill housekeeper, Laura Long, Mercer sent them on a six-month trip to the British Isles as a wedding gift, and eventually gave them life rights to Fonthill. He presented Mercer Museum to the Bucks County Historical Society in June 1916. Benjamin Barnes had the inside scoop!

“The Well of Monte Corbo” was discovered among Mercer’s papers after his death. In this story, an artist named Durer (no umlaut in the story) throws an important relic down a castle’s well and archeologists ever after try to reclaim it. The plot twists and turns through art and artists (including Titian), art authentication, and travel to art-significant destinations. Would you know the difference between a well and a cistern? I wouldn’t.

After my immersion into the supernatural tales of Henry C. Mercer, his buildings, and his life, I’m fairly certain that the people of Doylestown are justified in their D-town braggadocio. Just when I thought I had a handle on Mercer’s eccentricities and legacy, something new would pop into the picture for me to investigate. I just wish he’d written more than seven stories!

About the Author

Margaret Montet

Margaret Montet's narratives of place blend memoir, research, and the arts. She's a college librarian and completed the Pan European MFA Program at Cedar Crest College specializing in Creative Nonfiction. Margaret blends these skills when teaching music history courses to older adults and public speaking to college students. Her creative nonfiction has been published in The Bangalore Review, Pink Pangea, Library Journal, Mature Years, America in WWII, Edible Jersey, and other fine periodicals and anthologies. Her collection of travel essays, Nerd Traveler, was published in July, 2021, and Brooklyn Family Album will be published in September 2024.