In 1856 a baby boy was born into a family of wealth and privilege. Henry Chapman Mercer went on to study law at Harvard. However, he never once practiced the profession. Mercer instead studied both ancient and modern artistic pursuits and eventually built an American castle in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. This unique mansion was crammed floor to ceiling by its master and today is a historic temple to the art of collecting.
Having traveled extensively across Europe as a young man, Mercer became enthralled with art and history. Long before one could attend college to become a museum curator, his law degree was enough to land him the Curator of American and Prehistoric Archaeology at University of Pennsylvania Museum. Hoverer, he didn’t stay in the job very long before quitting life as a working stiff in order to hunt for archaeological treasures. At this time he also became infatuated with German pottery, which led to a fascination with tile making.
Mercer not only collected tiles, but also was a master tile maker and ceramicist himself- some of his pieces are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Like many other educated men of his time, he believed that mass production and machine made goods would eventually stamp out the artisanal goods that were, in his opinion, so crucial to a distinctive home. Mercer became one of the leading voices in the Arts and Crafts movement, which was nearing the end of its arc by the time he was building his castle.
On this premise, Mercer began building his own magnificent home in 1908. It is said that due to a traumatic fire at a previous residence, Mercer chose concrete for the building’s main structure, as he wanted it to be fireproof.
The exterior design, like many other grand homes from the Gilded Age, mimicked the splendor and aesthetics of European castles. Features like arched windows and medieval style defensive architectural elements made this building a more a reminder of the lords and ladies of the Middle Ages than that of a wealthy collector of the 20th century.
Within this refuge Mercer hoarded every kind of tile- which paved both floor and ceiling in a kaleidoscope of color and pattern.
Mercer also housed a huge collection of natural and cultural artifacts at his home. Combined with the tiles, the overall impression can be overwhelming at times. It certainly bears little resemblance how Mercer’s contemporaries, say the Vanderbilts’ many homes or William Randolph Heart’s castle in California, chose to decorate their mansions.
The castle was designed by Mercer himself and work on the building was completed in 1912. In the years between then and his death in 1930 he filled the castle with a host of objects from around the globe. Tools, boats, pottery- anything was fair game for display at Fonthill.
As a person of wealth, Mercer of course had servants and in his will he left Fonthill Castle to his housekeeper and her husband, Laura and Frank Swain, on condition that they preserve it and run it as a museum.
The Swains did as they had been implored in the will and Laura Swain lived there until her death in 1975. Today the castle still serves as a museum and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The quirky mansion serves as a monument to creativity and the relentless pursuit of individual artistic expression.
You can see more of this colorful and unusual castle in the video below.