by Zoe Watnik
Hands down, my favorite house museum is Fonthill Castle and its sister structure, the Mercer Museum, both in Doylestown, PA. They are a physical manifestation of Henry Chapman Mercer’s breadth of skills as a field archaeologist, a curator at The University of Pennsylvania’s archaeology museum, and a ceramic artist.
Walking into either of the chilly, gray buildings, you are completely overwhelmed by the expansive vaulted spaces. Drawn in, you take a closer look – everything is made from reinforced concrete cast in place. Literally everything – even the walls, doorposts, window frames and bookshelves. Why? He wanted it to be as fireproof as possible to protect his personal collection of American handcrafts, amassed over a lifetime.
Combining his professional and artistic interests in his home and his museum, Mercer built the ultimate cabinet of (pre-industrial revolution) curiosities. The structures permit the visitor to explore the scope of human ingenuity through close comparison of the tools of American trades.
But what really sets it apart is that visitors can explore the hundreds of rooms in the house or even the secret passages in the museum. Yes, real secret passages. How cool is that?!
Imagine yourself wandering the twisting passages and wondering where you’ll end up. Maybe you’ll find yourself in a chamber filled with cigar store Indians, cider presses, shoemaker’s tools, or maybe… (cue the eerie music)… a gallows. The Mercer even has its very own vampire killing kit on display.
Although this particular historic site falls into the “Dead White Men” paradigm through the celebration of one person’s contributions by examining his home, this particular house museum tells us so much about the changing world of early 20th century America.
Much like the now lost laboratory attached to the Lewis Latimer House, Mercer built the Fonthill Castle and Museum as his own spaces for exploration and contemplation. Both men studied, documented, and shaped the world around them. At the Latimer House, we will face the challenge of working through the family archives and interpreting the renovated building, seeking the resources that will help us build a more comprehensive narrative around the physical space.
(Editor’s note: This looks like a great place to visit for those who are into steampunk.)