“Henry C. Mercer’s Fonthill” by Jonathan Eeds

NNT Front CoverOver the summer I had the pleasure of visiting Fonthill, the astonishing storybook mansion designed and built by Henry C. Mercer. Fonthill’s eccentric architecture draws thousands of visitors a year, but scant few can claim any knowledge of Mercer’s other extraordinary achievement: a slim volume of strange stories called November Night Tales. I can thank Peter Bell for my literary adventure to Fonthill — a journey of over 3,000 miles from my home in Oregon. I had not heard of Mercer until I read Peter’s article about NNT in Wormwood (issue 22). It was here that Peter extolled the originality of November Night Tales and cited it as a great lost book that begged for rediscovery. Actually, it would be more correct to say: discovery, because very few copies of the original book were printed and sold, and until Peter wrote about it nobody really gave it much thought. Always on the lookout for new discoveries in weird fiction, I immediately began my search for Mercer’s book. I was so excited about finding a copy with dustjacket on eBay for only $230 that I completely forgot that I was shamefully surfing the net at work and shouted for joy . . . loudly. After gulping down the stories, I contacted Peter because I was thinking that my company, Bruin Books, could publish a paperback version. The situation became immediately more interesting when Peter connected me with Brian J. Showers at Swan River Press. A limited run hardback would be a more fitting tribute to this elusive gem of a book. One thing led to another and a few months later I found myself walking the Mercer Mile in Doylestown. November Night Tales was securely fastened in my mind. Now it was time to immerse myself in Mercer’s physical world.

Fonthill plaqueLocated in Doylestown, about an hour outside of Philadelphia, Fonthill was Mercer’s personal residence. It is situated a mile from the Mercer Museum, which Mercer also designed and built and filled to the rafters with relics of early American farmers and craftsmen. I visited the museum first, hoping to get a glimpse of the famous Lenape Stone, a carved relic discovered in a newly ploughed field in 1872. The stone, now broken in half, depicts a tribe of Native Americans taking down a Wooly Mammoth with spears. Mercer wrote an entire book about the finding, but it is now regarded as a forgery that was probably scratched out by a bored farm boy. When I finally found the stone at the very top level of the museum, I was disappointed by its size. It was more like a skipping stone than a tablet. Yet, forgery or not, I still want to believe in the Lenape Stone, because a carving of Indians and Mammoths struggling for supremacy in ancient America is how it should have been.

The rest of the museum is a packrat’s delight. Its many levels and multiple stairways encircle a single room that stretches from floor to rafters. It reminded me of a castle’s great room — no stretch of the imagination, considering Mercer’s lifetime fascination with castles. The vaulted ceiling, mounted with crates and miscellaneous contraptions posed upside down, gave the overhead spaces a strange mirrored look, creating the illusion that I was gazing into the bottom of a grotto strewn with cargo spilled from a shipwreck. There are only so many weeding hoes and one-horse buggies a person can handle in an afternoon, so I made for the exit after an hour of exploring the museum.

Fonthill with GarageThe stretch of road between museum and house is known as the Mercer mile, and there is a firm connection, both physically and spiritually, between the two massive structures. The quirky collection within the museum makes for an intriguing afternoon, but Fonthill is the true gem of the Mercer Mile. The house stands like a giant sand castle atop a gentle sloping hill. Mature columns of gnarled sycamore trees align a narrow asphalt road up to the house. I was there on an oppressively hot and humid day in July. A native of the west coast, I naturally associated any gray day with cooler weather, but here in Bucks County the overcast served as a pressure cooker, creating a stifling steam bath that felt more like the Florida Everglades than Amish country. The slightest movement had me panting for water. The comfy air-conditioning in the museum had weakened my resolve. I wasn’t ready for this. Mopping my head as I climbed the gravel path, it was hard to imagine the heavy snowfall that would blanket the grounds in winter.

Walking up to Fonthill, two things popped into my mind: Dr. Seuss and Sandcastles. Okay, three things: add Gormenghast. The many wings, turrets, balustrades and chimney pots of Fonthill could have been shaped by a child on the seashore. This impression is due to Mercer’s use of molded cement — not just the walls and pillars: he used cement for everything. The stairs are cement. The beds, bookcases, sinks and window pane casings are cement. The exception is the roof, which is composed of red ceramic tiles made in his own kilns.

Moravian Tile WorksTossing aside the idea of using blueprints or even taking measurements, Mercer began work on Fonthill in 1910. All he worked from was his own sketchbook. He sculpted his castle straight from his imagination using a revolutionary reinforced cement molding process. It is an artist’s creation and bears Mercer’s fascination with Moravian ceramics. He studied the process firsthand while traveling in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and now encompassing a large part of the Czech Republic. (A number of the stories in November Night Tales are situated in this ancient cauldron of myth and superstition — Stoker and Blackwood territory.) He returned home to establish the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works just down the grassy slope from Fonthill, and as my wallet will tell you: the kilns still operate today producing traditional tiles from Mercer’s original molds. Fonthill was designed to feature Mercer’s Moravian tiles. He wanted something to show potential customers. In that sense, Fonthill is a mad kind of factory showroom. Every wall, floor, ceiling and arch is a canvass for the Mercer tiles.

Fonthill on a sunnier dayThe only way to see the interior of the house is to pay for the guided tour. Sorry, no interior photography allowed. (Had Mercer been alive he would have met you at the door, provided lunch, good conversation and a place to spend the night before returning to Philadelphia — all out of genteel generosity and good salesmanship.) The foyer features a diminutive gift shop and, thankfully, a free-access water cooler. The house was so hot that day that the shop clerk encouraged all the visitors to drink some water before the tour began. Good advice, because despite what the official guidebook states on page nine, “the cool concrete surfaces” do not “give cool respite from the summer sun.” Judging by the number of books he owned, Mercer was clearly a book lover who enjoyed natural lighting to read by. The house has dozens of enormous windows that fill the interior with warming sunshine. At the height of summer with its insufferable humidity, however, the house became a Medieval bread oven. The labyrinth of passageways and twisting staircases, intriguing as they are, don’t allow for good air circulation. Our tour guide, who entertained us with Mercer facts spiced by a droll sense of humor, had the good sense to wear shorts and sandals, and to be conveniently bald. I had on a long shirt and pants, needed a haircut and had the Starbucks’ sweats.

Inside the Fonthill WellThere are forty-seven rooms in Fonthill, no two alike. One of the first rooms we visited was Mercer’s Library. The shelves were stuffed with leather-bound books; the walls were adorned with tiles, ornate mirrors, and old photographs. The ceilings and windows were high, allowing the daylight to brighten the room. Mercer’s writing desk was one of the few wooden objects in the house. It was a simple sturdy table built into a cement alcove that was filled with cubbyholes and bookshelves fashioned of the same dark-stained wood. It was here that Mercer must have written November Night Tales, and given the fantastic nature of the book, I like to think the creaks and moans the house emitted were more inspiring than derisive to the task.

Moravian Tile Works gift shopMercer used Fonthill to entertain the potential buyers of his tiles and pottery, and so all forty-seven rooms are smothered in decorative tiles. One room may appear to be aesthetically balanced and reassuring to the eye, only to find the adjoining room a jarring swirl of colors that makes you want to cry out, “Man, this is crazy.” Some rooms, particularly around the fireplaces, featured large tiles arranged in tableau so that they told a story in picture and form. One might find a tale from Shakespeare, or Dickens or a fairy tale. The Columbus room is distinctly beautiful with its vaulted ceiling supported by classical pillars and positively splattered with hundreds of tiles telling the story of Columbus and his adventures in the New World (but no mammoths). One of the nicer guest rooms has the story of Bluebeard encircling the wide, muscular fireplace. How pleasant, I think, to lay in the guest-bed and drowsily study the many murdered wives of Bluebeard. Another bedroom features the mischievous antics of primitive cannibals, including slow-turning spits and bone-crunching ’round the campfire. My favorite tiled tableau is from the Pickwick Papers. When I build my dream house with its wide muscular fireplace I will purchase this set from the Moravian Tile Works down the hill.

Mercer’s technique for building Fonthill’s vaulted ceilings was to build platforms and pile mounds of earth on which the cement would be poured in a reverse mold. A layer of sand capped the earthworks, and into this Mercer positioned his tiles. Once the cement cured, the platforms were removed and the sand washed away. In one hallway there is a pair of hands pushing through the ceiling, undoubtedly placed there by Mercer himself. The effect is delightfully creepy.

Many of the rooms were inspired by Mercers world travels. The little tour group descended one staircase that was overhung with an authentic Chinese pagoda roof. The sloping roofline and stone dragons jutting from the high wall presented an impressive if supremely odd effect.

bchs-archives-photographs-hcm-9_henry_dog_archival_1To build Fonthill, Mercer only had a few loyal workers to help him and one very loyal horse named Lucy, who was paid $1.75 per day, the same as the other workers. Lucy’s job was to hoist the cement up the upper levels with a rope and pulley. She is buried on the grounds, along with Mercer’s many beloved dogs. Rollo was Mercer’s favorite dog, and he is buried just beyond the wall of the Tile Works, near and old wisteria vine. His footprints can be found in cement at both Fonthill and the Mercer Museum. A life-sized bronze statue of Rollo greets visitors as they enter the museum.

Maybe it’s my age — or the heat and dehydration — but I had a lot of difficulty working the artifact door knob on the Tile Works entrance. Somebody from inside the shop had to let me in, and once in I immediately started making the two ladies very nervous by picking up and examining all the tiles on display. One of them approached and struck up a conversation, most likely to keep a close eye on my fumbling fingers. It was during the course of our conversation that I learned that Mercer had burned all of his papers before he died. When I said, “Why? Why on earth would he do that?” She gave me a slant-eyed look and whispered, “Some things are better not known.” Whatever Mercer’s secret was would be laughable by today’s standards, and so I just nodded knowingly. Since I was hitting it off so well with her I asked if Fonthill was haunted. Expecting to brush the question aside she instead offered quite a bit of information. Regrettably for all of us, most notably the Tourist Bureau, it appears that Fonthill Hill is not haunted. Museum workers who have spent the entire night have not heard a peep, a creak or seen a wisp of ectoplasm. To be sure they brought in a famous medium who thoroughly studied the house and found no paranormal activity. The house is clear. How boring. It appears that Henry was a good natured soul and was well cared for during his final days. No angst or misery hangs over the Fonthill. Ironically, one of the many names Mercer considered for his house was Overlook, the namesake of the intensely haunted hotel in The Shining. Well, I couldn’t afford the Pickwick Papers Tableau this trip, but I did leave with a bag-full of Mercer tiles — “gifts for my wife.”

The Mercer GraveMercer’s love of animals, his desire to surround his mansion with an arboretum, his innovative use of recycled materials to build Fonthill, his artistry, his whimsy, his kindness and philanthropy place him good standing with the people of Doylestown, and with me. As I trudged down the hill to my molten rental car that was ready to welcome me with its 1,000 degree vinyl seats, I felt I knew Dr. Mercer a great deal more than when I started the day. On the back cover of the Bucks County Historical Society pamphlet entitled Henry Chapman Mercer, there shows a flattering full-length photo of the older Chapman, no doubt taken near the time of his writing The November Night Tales. The back-of-the-book blurb states that Mercer was “A Renaissance man of the early 20th century.” He was “a historian, archaeologist, collector and ceramist. He was born, lived and died in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. To many, however, his legacy is as a scholar and visionary.” Nice, but nowhere is mentioned that he was the writer of the wonderful little book of weird tales called November Night Tales. It was a great honor to work with Brian J. Showers of Swan River Press and author Peter Bell, who contributed an introduction to our new edition, to correct that omission.


A deluxe hardback edition of Henry C. Mercer’s November Night Tales is now available from Swan River Press, with an introduction by Peter Bell, and fully illustrated by Alisdair Wood.

You can order a copy here.

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“Henry C. Mercer’s Fonthill” by Jonathan Eeds