Gods of Pennsylvania: Henry Mercer


From the moment I stepped inside the central atrium of the Mercer Museum, I felt like Alice falling through the rabbit hole and emerging in Wonderland.

My senses were overloaded as floor after floor contained an eclectic display of pre-industrial tools, seen from a multitude of vantage points, which made each tier of this castle grander than the next.

Simply put -- this place is magical.

Unless you live in the Doylestown area (a northwest Philadelphia suburb), it is doubtful you know much, if anything, about Henry Mercer and his giant, six story, cement building in the middle of the borough.

So -  let me take a moment to introduce you to the man and his mission.

Henry Chapman Mercer was born just prior to the Civil War in 1856, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania to the wealthy Mercer family (Massachusetts textile industry). He was well educated and had lots of opportunities to travel, especially throughout Europe. He acquired a degree at Harvard, then went onto law school at the University of Pennsylvania, but never practiced because his interests turned toward archaeology - this is when he helped found the Bucks County Historical Society and was appointed the curator of American and prehistoric archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania's museum.

His turning point in life was around 1897 when he noticed the quick decay of early American society, which was being replaced by industrialism. Mercer’s story is that he saw a mess of old agricultural tools and household utensils piled together to be sold, and then realized that American pre-industrial history was being discarded. He made it his mission to start saving these items to be preserved for future generations and according to the Annapolis Capital Newspaper, he went about "rummaging the bake ovens, wagon houses, cellars, haylofts, smokehouses, garrets, and chimney corners" for anything Americana.

The collection continued to grow until he had over 30,000 items - and like any good collector, he needed a place to display his wares.  This is where the Mercer Museum comes into play.

In 1913, Henry, along with eight day-laborers and “Lucy” the horse started construction on the 6-story concrete castle (completed in 1916) and filled it with his vast inventory. Every year, more than 80,000 people visit the showroom and leave awestruck over what they see. And since the museum was specifically designed by Mercer to display pre-industrial tools, he created an experience for people to view the items up close and from many different perspectives - this produces an intimate connection to the people who used these devices.

One of the best compliments about the location came from Henry Ford, who stated that “the Mercer museum was the only museum worth visiting in the United States”, and if you have ever been to Ford’s own museum in Dearborn, Michigan, it’s apparent that Mercer inspired him greatly.

So - now that you have a little background, here’s my picks for why he made the Gods of Pennsylvania list:

Passionate

When we see a problem, what do most of us do? We usually shrug our shoulders and wish there was something they could do about it. Well, when Mercer saw a problem, he went about fixing it.

For instance, while he was amassing his collection of pre-industrial tools, he became interested in German Pennsylvanian tile making and quickly realized this craft was going the way of the dinosaurs. Mercer immediately apprenticed himself to an authentic potter in Bucks County where he became proficient in the art. He then followed up by building the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works to preserve the craft (which still operates to this date).

His passion led him to action - something we all should desire.

Visionary

In a few of  Mercer’s books, he talks about his frustration with certain aspects of archeology, especially drawing conclusions from finding items that don’t have a connective line to the present. So his idea was to start with the present (what we know) and then work toward the past.

Also, while he travelled throughout Europe, he became aware that many museums had been destroyed (and with it their collections) by fire. He had the foresight to make his house, tile factory, and museum out of reinforced concrete to ensure they would around for a very long time.

Renaissance Man

Much like Thomas Jefferson and Leonardo Da Vinci, Mercer was well educated and gifted in many fields of study. In his lifetime, he was a lawyer, architect, artisan, engineer, anthropologist, collector, curator, author, historian, and a tile-maker (to name a few).

After talking with Ed Reidell, site administrator at the Fonthill Museum (Mercer’s home), it became apparent that Henry was incredibly gifted at whatever he set his mind to do. Henry’s skill at tile-working landed him the job of creating four hundred different scenes from Pennsylvania’s history to decorate the state Capitol’s floor. His work also shows up at the Monte Carlo casino, Rockefeller's New York estate, the St. Louis Public Library, and Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, California.

Upon his death in 1930, Henry Mercer left Fonthill Castle to his housekeeper and the museum and tile-works to the Bucks County Historical Society where they continue to keep his vision alive today.

I highly recommend you put Doylestown on your lists of “must sees” and visit all three of Mercer’s buildings (The Mercer Mile), but if you can’t get there immediately, check out this virtual tour of the main atrium.  (http://www.mercermuseum.org/themes/mysite/swf/p01tm.swf)

To see pictures from my adventure there, click here.

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