June 24, 1856– Henry Chapman Mercer was an archaeologist, artifact collector, tile-maker, naturalist, writer, anthropologist, and designer of three distinctive poured concrete structures: His own home, Fonthill, an American castle really; The Moravian Pottery & Tile Works; plus The Mercer Museum. Like me, Mercer passionately loved dogs, was an advocate for all creatures, collected pottery, and he was considered to be an eccentric by members of his own class. Mercer was born to privilege and he traveled the world in search of adventure while collecting stuff. Just my sort of fellow.
Mercer was a gay man, but he was also an intensely private man who destroyed most of the private papers and correspondence before he left this life.
He attended Harvard University from 1875 to1879, and he went on to study law at University Of Pennsylvania in 1881. Around that time Mercer became a founding member of the Bucks County Historical Society.
But, Mercer never practiced law. Instead, he went to Europe where he traveled the continent, buying up pottery & artifacts, & checking out the men.
Self-taught, Mercer became an expert and was appointed Curator of The American And Prehistoric Archaeology Department at The University Of Pennsylvania Museum in the early 1890s. At the start of the 20th century he left the job & devoted himself to finding American artifacts, believing that American society was being destroyed by industrialism.
Mercer founded The Moravian Pottery & Tile Works after apprenticing with a Pennsylvanian-German potter. His work greatly influenced the American Arts And Crafts Movement of the Edwardian era.
Mercer’s beautiful tiles were made using traditional methods. They were used, and can still be seen today in the mosaic floor at the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building, plus many other notable buildings and residences in the USA. The Pennsylvania State Capitol mosaics depict the history of the State of Pennsylvania from prehistoric times. They are the largest single collection of Mercer’s amazing tiles. Other tile works designed and manufactured by Mercer can be found at the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, NY, Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, and the Casino at Monte Carlo in Monaco.
Many of 2,000 Mercer tile designs, drawing from sources as eclectic as Native-American lore and medieval heraldry, are currently in use. The Moravian Pottery & Tile Works catalog features tiles, with prices ranging from $5 for a single tile to more than $400 for a large mosaic, which are still available.
Henry Ford stated that The Mercer Museum was the only museum worth visiting in the USA, and the Mercer Museum was the inspiration for Ford’s own museum in Michigan. The Mercer Museum has over 40,000 artifacts of early Americana.
Fonthill, the nutty house he designed and constructed between 1908-1912, without the benefit of blueprints, is now owned by The Bucks County Historical Society and it is open to the public. It is eccentric to say the least, but really worth seeing, with 44 rooms, 32 stairwells, 200 windows, and 18 fireplaces. It’s filled with pottery and tiles from Mercer’s travels around the globe. There are columns scattered all around that sneer at symmetry; 3,000 year-old Etruscan pots are suspended in wire nets from the ceiling; chests of drawers are imbedded in concrete protrusions; dog themed doorstops and hinges; careening staircases and Mercer tiles blanket every surface. Wild, crazy and fantastic.
Mercer was eccentric, to say the least. His neighbors in Bucks County considered him to be crazy. He refused to drive a car, but often bicycled, his cape billowing behind him as he pedaled down the country roads. He hated electric lights. He had an aversion to the stylized pruning of trees and shrubs that was popular in his era, but loved weeds. He was obsessed with fire. In fear of it, he chose concrete for his buildings because it was fire-resistant, but also loving it, with the “the gift of fire” a recurrent theme in his tile designs. He was obsessed with the past, and feared that the past was slipping away. The only newspaper he read was The London Times.
Mercer deserves more attention from people interested in gay history, although a lot of what were probably his juiciest files were among the things that he destroyed, like so many other gay figures from that era. I did find a reference to his having come down with the clap during his time in Europe. Mercer’s lifelong friend, Frank Swain, helped Mercer build Fonthill, where they lived together as a couple. After the locals started whispering about the men’s relationship, Mercer conveniently had his housekeeper marry Swain.
My research also found that Mercer was almost always referred to as “a committed bachelor”, one of my favorite euphemisms for historical homos and much different than the 21st century reality television series The Bachelor.
Mercer sure was a looker, and did I mention that he was just crazy for dogs?