Castles Made of Sand

Henry Chapman Mercer lived a life in full. Born of a leading family in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, he attended Harvard University and studied law at the University of Pennsylvania. He left the legal practice and spent almost eight years traveling throughout Europe. He then found archeology as his calling, working at the University of Pennsylvania as a curator of American and Prehistoric Archeology. During this time, he fell in love with pottery and apprenticed to a master potter to learn this art. Henry created a factory, the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, to produce hand-made tiles. Later in his life, he spent his time and fortune collecting the tools of crafts and trades that were being eliminated by industrialism. By the time of his passing in 1930, he had created one of the largest historical collections of American trades and crafts (via Wikipedia and Harvard Magazine).

I had previously visited Henry’s museum, the Mercer Museum, in May of this past year. However, I had not been able to tour the other museum that honors this unique man – his home, Fonthill Castle. Built between 1908-1912, Fonthill Castle is a 44-room colossus made from reinforced concrete. Designed by Henry, who dabbled as an amateur architect as well, Fonthill is decorated with tiles made from his tile factory, and is still filled with all the artifacts of his life, none of which are reproductions. On a cold, yet sunny, day in early February, my wife and I set off to explore this historic site.

Before I dive into the trip, however, I did want to pass along a few updates. First, on a sad note, I found out recently that Irv Gordon passed away in November. Irv attained fame for driving his 1966 Volvo P1800 coupe a Guinness Record 3.2 MILLION miles. His name is synonymous with “road trip warrior,” and  beyond that, he seemed like a really interesting guy. I would have enjoyed an opportunity to grab a cup of coffee with him and chat about driving, cars, and adventures on the road. As he said once, “The long way around is sometimes the best way around.” This video captures Irv in all of his quirkiness and charm:

And now, some updates from closer to home:

View of frozen lake, with mountains in the background and a cloudy sky above.
My wife and I recently took a trip to the Adirondacks to visit a family member. Arriving there with temperatures in the low teens and ample snow on the ground, it felt as if I had walked onto the set of Winterfell in Game of Thrones: “Winter is Coming.”
View of mountain road during snowstorm. Trees line the road on both sides, and a car is in front.
It was my first time being in the Adirondacks during a winter storm. Despite the cold and seemingly endless snow, it was beautiful.
View of Wigwam Tavern on the side of a snow-covered road. View is from behind dashboard of Jeep.
One of my favorite landmarks in the Adirondacks: the Wigwam Tavern in Forestport, NY. How do you attract attention to your restaurant? Having the tail of an airplane sticking out of your roof is as good a way as I can imagine.

As I mentioned above, this trip was the first time I experienced a significant snowstorm in the Adirondacks. Perhaps this short video of snow falling across a frozen lake can give you a sense of the weather we experienced:

Dashboard display of car that reads REMOTE START ACTIVE PUSH BUTTON START 32304 MI. Temperature display reads 0 degrees.
We returned to New Jersey in time for record cold temperatures. The outside temperature on my wife’s Jeep Grand Cherokee (top left) was accurate. Brrrr.
2012 Honda Accord coupe, covered in salt.
Recent snow storms and freezing temperatures left my Accord covered in a layer of salt and grime. On the automotive front, my car had its first ever check engine light. The dealer identified a misfire in two cylinders (cylinders 5 and 6). The culprit was identified as the coil packs for those cylinders, which transmit electricity to the spark plugs. The Accord has had some parts wear out recently (ball joints, sway bar links, brakes), but this was the first emergency repair that the car has required. I suppose with 123,000 miles, the occasional fix is needed.
Model railroad diorama with mountains, a river, and train tracks.
I also took my Dad to Northlandz, the model railroad museum in Flemington, New Jersey. You may remember Northlandz from this post a few months ago.
Car odometer reading 123456 TRIP A 789.0
And on the way home from Northlandz, my Accord achieved this little milestone.

And now, onto the trip to Fonthill Castle:

Map of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, with a red pin in the location of Fonthill Castle.
Located about an hour from Philadelphia, Fonthill Castle is in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Platter with summer rolls and a small bowl with peanut sauce.
Before exploring the museum, we stopped for lunch at Phi Vietnamese. If you’re in Doylestown and are in the mood for Vietnamese food, Phi hits the spot. We started with an appetizer of summer rolls.
Rice vermicelli bowl with chicken, peanuts, and vegetables.
I ordered the rice vermicelli bowl, with shredded vegetables and roast chicken. My wife ordered the fine rice vermicelli, which is an even finer noodle served with vegetables and pork, in a lettuce wrap. How was it? Absolutely delicious!
Exterior of Fonthill Castle.
Full of delicious food, we headed to Fonthill Castle, about a mile from the restaurant.
Rear exterior view of Fonthill Castle.
Made entirely from hand-mixed reinforced concrete, the castle took four years to complete. It has 44 rooms (10 of which are bathrooms), 18 fireplaces, 32 staircases, and more than 200 windows.
Panorama of library ceiling.
The tour begins in the library, which holds the majority of Henry Mercer’s collection of 6,000 books. Henry did not buy books for decorative purposes – all of his books contain markings and notes that he left as he wrote them. His copy of A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway was on display, and offered Henry’s unvarnished observation that the book was: “As convincing as a tapeworm. As charming as a bottle of dead flies.”
Four tiles - one of a bird, one of a cow, one of a soldiers, and one of the sun, all on a blue and white patterned background.
Tiles made by Henry’s nearby Moravian Tile Works decorated almost every surface, including walls, pillars, and the ceilings.
Tile mosaic in the vaulted ceiling.
The vaulted ceilings, complete with mosaics of tiles, were built from above – platforms were erected beneath where the ceiling was to be built, and the tiles would be packed into sand and dirt, and then concrete would be poured from above to solidify the creation.
Staircase and balcony of saloon.
The strange architecture came from one man, with no formal training in design, creating his castle according to his whims. A photograph of Henry is on the right.
Cuneiform tablets embedded in pillar, surrounded by colored bricks. An encryption says RECORDS OF ELLASSAR 2400 BC GENESIS 14.
Henry’s passion for archaeology never deserted him. The small clay tablets you see displayed in this pillar are from Babylon (modern day Iraq) and are written in Cuneiform, the world’s oldest written language. These particular tablets date to 2400 B.C.
Guest room with windows in far corner, dressed, bed, and armoire. Paintings are hung on the walls.
Imagine staying overnight in one of the guest rooms at Fonthill, such as this? Don’t bother trying to rearrange the furniture if you stay here, as all the furniture is made from concrete and cannot be moved. In addition, the castle is centrally heated and has indoor plumbing, a rarity at the time of its construction.
Telephone-style intercom system.
When you have a castle with 44 rooms, how do you communicate with your 17 servants? With a telephone-based intercom system, of course! At a time when less than 5% of the population had a telephone, Henry built his own phone system throughout the house… how else to order one of his beloved cold beers from the kitchen?
Tilework Latin inscription, on stairs.
Every possible surface featured Henry’s tilework, including this Latin inscription on the stairs leading to his bedroom.
Tilework mosaic of ships and exploration, on the ceiling.
The detail of the tiles was simply amazing.
View of castle from terrace on third floor.
Later in his life, as his health failed, Henry took up residence in a small guest room on the third floor. A large terrace outside of the room afforded him a view of his beloved castle, the carriage house, and the grounds of his estate.
Medicines and a tea cup in a glass case.
All of Henry’s possessions remain in the castle. These were the medicines that Henry was taking near the end of his life.
Picture of chesapeake Bay Retriever, alongside a staircase. Two paw prints are in the concrete, and an inscription reads ROLLO'S STAIRS.
Henry named this staircase after his beloved Chesapeake Bay retriever, “Rollo.” Rollo’s paw prints are visible in the staircase.
Roof tiles from China.
In addition to those which he manufactured, Henry also collected tiles from around the world. These roof tiles are from a temple in China, built around 1700 AD, which he purchased and brought to his home.
Items on Henry's desk in his study, including a letter, matches, books, pencils, journals, and a pen.
Henry’s desk is preserved in his study as he left it. In the letter on the right addressed to a Boston newspaper, Henry argues against US entry into World War I.
Ancient pottery, held up by netting.
Ancient pottery from South America, the Middle East, and Egypt, some dating to nearly 9,000 years ago, in Henry’s study… which he held in place by netting. Despite his strong desire to collect artifacts, his displays left a little to be desired.
2012 Honda Accord in front of Fonthill Castle.
And no trip is complete without the obligatory car photo. Of course.

On the way home, I mentioned to my wife that, similar to the NJ Lighthouse Challenge we completed in October, there should be a U.S. Castle challenge, where tourists visit every major castle in our nation, a country established long after the great castles and chateaus of Europe were built. At least for one afternoon, however, we were able to explore a castle and learn more about a fascinating individual and his life’s work. Fonthill Castle is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm, and Sunday from noon until 5:00 pm. Admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors age 65 and older, $8 for children ages 6-17, children 5 and younger can enter for free, and so can US active duty military personnel and their families. AAA members can receive a $1 off discount, so make sure you show your card when you buy your tickets! One bit of advice: when planning to visit, call ahead to make a reservation, as the guided tours fill up quickly. If you are near Philadelphia, I would highly recommend detouring to charming Doylestown to visit the Mercer Museum and Fonthill Castle.

Thanks for reading this longer post, and coming along on another journey down the open road ahead!

‘Til next time.



2 thoughts on “Castles Made of Sand

  1. I love the intricate details of the castle, especially in that tile work! What a testament to that guy’s skill in working with clay and pottery. Vietnamese food looks tasty. About that Accord though! Yikes – that’s a lot of salt, haha. Nice testament to Irv Gordon. He was an inspiration to many of us.

    Liked by 1 person

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