December 27, 2010

The Concrete Castle

At our Quakertown PA campsite in October, Chuck and I looked through brochures describing attractions in small towns north of Philadelphia. We’d done one day in Philadelphia, standing enthralled where a few brave and determined men made final decisions then signed, sealed and delivered (as in birthed) our nation. We’d walked through wonderfully preserved hallowed buildings amid crowds and intense but very polite security and explored the surrounding blocks - a mix of new tall office buildings, small struggling trendy businesses, rebirth and decay. We decided that for now, one day in the big city was enough!

Not far away in Doylestown, PA was the Mercer Museum, built by the idiosyncratic and intellectually curious ceramicist- archeologist-antiquarian-writer-collector Henry Mercer, one of the leaders of the early 20th century arts and crafts movement. Mercer left three edifices made of hand-mixed and poured concrete. The still active Moravian Pottery & Tile Works, where his own unique art was produced is designated a National Historic Landmark. Fonthill is his mansion of 44 tile-lined rooms, full of objects collected from around the world. We visited the Mercer Museum, his repository of early American everyday objects and tools, built by untrained laborers working under Mercer’s direction and without any written plans. A rainy day increased the drama.

Always interested in how ordinary things were done, Mercer observed that at the end of the 19th century new technologies were changing every aspect of life, from drawing water (find deep well bucket) to door fasteners and hat production! He anticipated that details of early American life from the pre-industrial mid-1800s to 1900 could one day be forgotten, so began to collect material widely and wildly. His own unique system of organization is based upon categories of tools and function in order to show how people lived and worked in early America. His collection of more than 40,000 items represents trades, crafts, agriculture and domestic life in the eastern U.S.

Mercer’s display method was purposeful, but outside traditional museum practice even in his day. The museum seeks to retain his intellectual and display system while attempting with limited resources to prevent time and climatic difficulties (stemming in part from the structure itself) from degrading the collection!  Difficult to illuminate. No climate control - including no heat! Gradual changes continue.

Six stories and a maze of small rooms with sometimes uneven floors surround the center open space. It’s full of drama, possible to become lost in the stairways and confusing passages. On the right central wall are various methods of transportation.


Things to sit or lie in  – Advertising - Animal husbandry .







We were fascinated by things we’d never considered, items that we would have known or used had we lived then. How foreign is this one! Hatter’s tools: Bow and bow plucker (the peg in center) used to vibrate fibers, causing them to interlace and form a felt-like sheet.



Wander, look, read labels, imagine life 150 years ago. Metalwork and stamped wallpaper and fabrics.




Sometimes we guess: musical instrument? Food preparation? Huh? Can you guess?





Mercer’s own ceramics embody beauty and function.












Our visit was long, we ran out of steam before we could see everything!


barb said...

i keep thinking that those of us with our digital cameras are missing the obvious. we need, i think, to be recording the every day things, not the spectacular things. it's what i enjoy the most when i go to museums.

feliz ano nuevo to you and chuck from mexico!!!


C and G Taylor said...

That seems to me a very wise comment. Barb - thanks!