Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Fonthill Castle -- Doylestown's Shadowy Showplace

On Halloween, my best buds, Val and Joan, and I traveled the 45-minute drive from Philadelphia to Doylestown, PA. Our main destination was to the Grace Kelly (a Philly girl, too) exhibition at the James Michener Art Museum. The exhibit displays her clothing, the Oscar for her performance in the film, The Country Girl, personal letters from the British royal family and other famous folks, videos and home movies, other memorabilia and more.

After a quick and tasty lunch at Hickory Kitchens, we scurried over to the four o’clock (and final) daily tour of Fonthill Castle. It was built between 1908 and 1912 by Henry Chapman Mercer, a brilliant, but eccentric, entrepreneur as a shrine to his interests and business. As a proponent of the Arts and Crafts Movement, he established the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, a factory that still produces tiles, and offers public tours, too. The factory can be found on the 70-acre estate that also houses the castle.

I received a hint of what was to come when I entered. The first thing I saw was a stuffed raven (a la Poe and Hitchcock). We were ushered into a nearby sunroom to view an episode of the TV show, America’s Castles that featured Fonthill. Soon our guided tour began. (No photography allowed.)

Mercer designed his home with the forethought of it becoming a museum after his death. I can’t say much for his architectural skill, but he built an undoubtedly unique structure entirely of concrete. That material was chosen as a deterrent to fire which would have destroyed his treasures. Now when I say treasures, I don’t mean the typical rich man’s treasures of gold and precious gems. Although very wealthy, Mercer’s treasures consist of artwork, antiques, books (over 6,000, documented and housed in concrete bookcases) and an extensive collection of historic foreign tiles bought on his travels, that include Mesopotamian cuneiforms dating back four thousand years and a section of Chinese roof tiles. He also showcased his own handcrafted tiles. They are all embedded in concrete walls, pillars and ceiling ribs.

I didn’t see one room out of the 44 in the standard rectangular or square shape. The 200 windows did little to wash away the gloom, and the old-fashioned unshaded bulbs with exposed filigree wires did little to help. The 32 staircases popped up suddenly in unexpected spaces as we trekked through room after room. In spite of his peculiarities, Mercer was a modern man of his day, and far ahead of many builders. He included 10 bathrooms, fitted with tubs, sinks and flushing toilets, electricity, an intercom system and, alongside 18 fireplaces, central heating. The docent insisted that the home was more cheerful than it appears today with colorful draperies, Oriental carpets and painted walls.

But for me, maybe because I had the creepy Halloween spirit, I sensed that there were other spirits lurking in Fonthill. Others may feel it, too, as they follow the docent around during the darkening four o’clock tour during Standard Time. (If she leads with a candle, then it’s all Poe.) The venue is open all year, and I highly recommend it for people looking for something different (and, maybe, a little macabre).

Photos by Eleanor Hendricks McDaniel
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  1. What a wonderful shot of "The Raven" on the window sill! And your commentary on Fonthill is so interesting. It was a splendid visit. We must go back in the Spring.

  2. Well done Eleanor! It was like visiting again. You left out the juicy exchanges while we were doing all this scurrying about. Fun day with good company.