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Fonthill


Fonthill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Portions of the content of this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.

Together with the Mercer Museum and the Moravian Pottery and Tileworks, these properties are often referred to as "The Mercer Mile."

Description

Fonthill, the home of Dr. Henry C. Mercer, defies any classification or categorization into architectural styles or modes. The reason for this is given by Dr. Mercer in the notes on building his house. "The house was planned by me, room by room, entirely, from the interior, the exterior not being considered until all the rooms had been imagined and sketched, after which blocks of clay representing the rooms were piled on a table, set together and modelled into a general outline. After a good many changes in the profile of the tower, roofs, etc., a plater of paris model was made to scale, and used until the building was completed."

With this explanation, it becomes clear why Fonthill is in the shape and style that it now bears. The buildings of this estate are made of reinforced concrete with red tiles covering the roofs of some of the buildings. The buildings are a conglomeration of styles and innovations molded together in a concrete body. Roof pitch, windows, dormers, chimneys, exterior wall design, and overhung roof all vary with the only constant being the concrete shell. The only resemblance of any existing structure that the Mercer Mansion bears would be to a medieval castle, and thus the building is sometimes referred to as "The Castle."

Within the estate of Fonthill are the following buildings:

  1. Main Building – This structure is made of concrete in the various styles mentioned above and can be identified by its large, 4 story tower with mansard roof and balcony.
  2. Garage or "pavilion terrace" – This structure is made of concrete but is separate from the main building. It has numerous chimneys and some of its dormers are fashioned into dove cotes or birdhouses. A balcony is part of the second story front. The steps and other posterior parts of the garage are ivy clad, with a concrete roof.
  3. A small spring house that is decorated with tiles.
  4. Cement gates at the front drive (one with the name Fonthill on it) and some cement arched bridges over a stream.
  5. A mid-18th century farm house that was moved onto the property and used as an arboretum.

The present appearance remains unchanged since the death of Dr. Mercer in 1930. It has been passed down to the present time in the terms of Mercer's will to be a museum of tiles and decorative art.

Significance

Fonthill gains its fame for several reasons. It was the home of the noted archeologist and anthropologist, Dr. Henry C. Mercer. Mercer is noted for his collection of rapidly vanishing artifacts of the pre-industrial Pennsylvania crafts and household utensils. Mercer is also noted for his work with tiles. His tiles have decorated the Casino at Monte Carlo, the State Capitol at Harrisburg, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and other lesser buildings and homes throughout the United States, especially in the northeast. Mercer is renowned for his books on iron, archeological digs, and anthropology. His tiles won him a gold medal at the 1904 St. Louis Exhibition.

The estate of Fonthill is one of the pioneer examples of using reinforced concrete as a building medium. At the same time of its building, Fonthill was thought to be structurally unstable by some architects.

Fonthill is described by Dr. Mercer as coming from various sources, some of which are Byzantine Churches in Greece, Mount St. Michel in France, a Turkish house in Salonica and the paintings of Gerard Dow "Dutch Housekeeper," Wouverman's "Great Barn," De Boucourt's "Le Main Chaud," and a woodcut by the name of "Haunted" in a story called "A Stable for Nightmares."

Mercer has been described as a an of unbending hostility to ugliness and false taste; who possessed the spirit of the craftsman of the past." Fonthill was built with the maxim of Pugin: "Decorate construction, but never construct decoration."

School District: Central Bucks

Fonthill Map

Street Names
Court Street East

**Information is curated from a variety of sources and, while deemed reliable, is not guaranteed.
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