Updated: Jul 28, 2020
While Henry Chapman Mercer left behind a castle and a museum with forty thousand artifacts and six thousand books, he left behind very few details of his private life. Before he passed away on March 9, 1930, he destroyed most of his personal records, making him one of the most mysterious Renaissance men of the 20th century—if not ever.
Fonthill Castle, Henry's home shown above, was right down the road from our humble abode in Doylestown.
Happy birthday, Henry Chapman Mercer!
Henry was born on June 24, 1856, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania to very proper Chapmans and Mercers who were judges, politicians and diplomats—families who had prospered in Bucks County since the late 17th Century. Henry never married. His younger brother, Willie, a country squire who dabbled in sculpture, lost twin boys when they were infants. His younger sister, Lela, became an Austrian baroness. By World War II, the great Mercer/Chapman line had been virtually wiped from the map.
Henry’s lifelong nickname was “Harry,” although as a kid, his family called him “Hal.” He was homeschooled early on but later attended William Tennent School as a boarder. When he was fourteen years old, he accompanied his mother, aunts and servants to Europe, where they traveled extensively, touring historical sites and visiting castles.
Henry graduated from Harvard University and later attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He passed the bar, but never practiced. He continued to travel, funded by the wealth of his beloved Aunt Elizabeth, who left him a fortune upon her death.
Henry was a well-rounded elitist who craved knowledge and who suffered from insomnia. He wasn’t content unless he was exploring, building, preserving or creating. He was known to continually burn the midnight oil reading and inventing.
His broad interests included archeology, finding many Native American relics in Bucks County which can be found in his home and museum. He was also a writer and an author, but eventually became enthralled by the Arts and Crafts movement. Through it, the Moravian Tile Works was born and is still in full operation. It’s a National Historic Landmark and is maintained as a “working history” museum. You can purchase original designs found in his castle.
Henry had no formal background in architecture, but he wanted to build something truly special. He studied castles for ten years, consulted with an engineer about building with cement, and worked tirelessly to build his home, known as Fonthill in only five. He built it alongside about a dozen of his most loyal men and a big workhorse known as Lucy.
Henry was one who treasured both the old and the new. When he began building Fonthill, he took great care to build the castle around the original farmhouse. He also wanted the castle to look old, so he approached the architecture in a gothic style, while the Tile Works more Spanish mission. He even burned many of the ceilings to make them appear darker and older.
All the cement used was mixed by hand and formulated from local quarries. Columns and arches of unique proportions grace every room with thousands upon thousands of tiles from his unique collection. Some rooms tell stories. The Christopher Columbus room is one of the most ornate. While Henry was a great fan of history, he was also a storyteller. I’ve been told that through the tiles, he changed the story of Columbus in many locations. But I get too dizzy looking up at the ceilings to know where!
The official Bucks County Historical Society Fonthill Fact Sheet (see end of blog) covers a great deal of interesting facts, including the first item on my list. But through my own research, and the many tours I’ve attended, I took a few notes for the rest.
Fonthill boasts 44 rooms; 10 bathrooms; 5 bedrooms; at least 32 stairwells; 17 fireplaces and 21 chimneys and air vents
There are 200 windows in different shapes and sizes
With no real blueprint, nothing is very symmetrical, adding to its allure
A dumbwaiter was used to deliver meals and other supplies
There is an elevator that was used to move items from one floor to the next, but Henry used it himself during his final months when he was too weak to maneuver the stairs
He had many servants and a servant bell in every room
He incorporated at least one hidden staircase behind the fireplace in the library
Henry had many dogs, including his beloved companion, Rollo. Henry allowed Rollo to walk through wet concrete in parts of the museum to be forever memorialized.
To view all images, click the arrows to the left and right.
Images shown include: outside architecture, hidden staircase, elevator door, female guest room, dumbwaiter, fireplace and ceiling tiles in the Columbus Room, sitting area, medicine bottles left in the room where he passed and spring house.
For more details and amazing photos of the Fonthill being erected, visit:
Unraveling some of the mystery
Why leave an amazing legacy but destroy your personal records? It’s a question that historians and the curious, like me, would love to know. Genealogical records are aplenty, but there are things Henry must not have wanted the average busybody to know.
Henry’s private life
Henry never married but had a relationship with a debutant who would come and stay with him somewhat regularly. She always stayed in the female guest room shown above. Rumor has it that he proposed, but that she declined, claiming that Henry was a bit too eccentric for her. Perhaps it broke his heart for good.
Like many in those days, there is also evidence that Henry suffered from gonorrhea, which he is said to have contracted during a 1881-82 trip through Europe. Since it was incurable at the time, he suffered from the disease throughout his life and was often ill. It’s likely that the disease accounts for the fact that he never married. (See source 1.)
Otherwise, he spent much of his time at the castle with his dear friend and assistant, Frank Swain, and with his trusted housekeeper, Laura Long. With the three of them coming and going in and out of the castle, the rumor mill was churning. Locals wondered if Henry and Frank were perhaps in a romantic relationship. To this day, the local gay community have their suspicions as well. But we’ll never know for sure. (See source 2.)
Many believe, to silence the rumors, Swain married the housekeeper and the three of them lived happily ever after, so to speak. Henry left the estate to Frank and Laura Swain. After Frank's death, Laura maintained Fonthill and gave occasional tours until she passed away in 1975. It was willed to the Bucks County Historical Society upon her death. They do a fantastic job keeping what stories they know alive and preserving Henry's collections.
He was obsessed with fire
Henry was obsessed with fire. He feared it on one hand—even lost the original Tile Works to an inferno. It’s another reason he chose concrete for his buildings because it is fire-resistant. He had way too many artifacts, some dating to ancient Egypt and before Christ. He didn’t want a fire to wipe away the irreplaceable. While fearing it, he also respected fire and cherished it. Fire was a recurring theme in some of his tiles. And there isn’t a single tile that can be finished without a kiln, so it was part of his prosperity too.
Henry didn’t drive
He could afford any automobile he wanted and owned several, but he did not get behind the wheel. Instead, he either rode his bike or was chauffeured. That tidbit is fascinating to me for some reason because he was such an adventurous soul. Another fun fact ... James Michener was Henry’s neighbor and paper boy. The families were friendly, though I don’t know how much so, and for how long.
Henry was one-of-a kind
No matter what personal information Henry decided to destroy before his death, he left an amazing legacy for everyone to enjoy. For me, visiting never gets old. As I write this blog, on my desk, in a gothic style easel, is one of Henry’s tiles with his famous motto on it, PLVS VLTA, or "more beyond." It inspires me every day.
The Mercer Museum is “the only museum in America worth visiting.” – Henry Ford
To view images from the museum, click the arrows to the left or right.