There’s a Castle in Pennsylvania That’s Kinda Amazing: A Day at Fonthill Castle and the Mercer Museum

A couple years ago, a good friend of mine moved to Philadelphia.  Recently, we decided to get together somewhere between Philly and NYC so that we could catch up and both visit someplace new, and she suggested that we meet in Doylestown, PA for brunch and a visit to Fonthill Castle and the Mercer Museum. I knew nothing about either place, but I’m a sucker for historic homes and the website looked interesting…so we had a plan!

I was up bright and early and began the trip south to Doylestown, which is not quite a 2-hour drive from Brooklyn.  We started the day off with brunch at the Doylestown Inn, where I had their chicken and biscuit waffle with gravy. YUM. The Inn is really adorable, and though we sat inside, they also have a few tables outside that must offer some great people-watching opportunities since they’re right along a busy street full of cute boutiques and restaurants.  After brunch, we wandered through town a bit, checked out the farmers’ market, and grabbed some dessert at Nonno’s Cafe. (Also YUM!) Soon it was time to go, and we drove the 10 minutes from town and up the hill to the castle.

Fonthill Castle
Fonthill Castle

You can only visit Fonthill Castle as part of their one-hour guided tour, and you are required to make a reservation in advance.  We checked in and paid for our tickets, which you can get at a discounted rate by combining admission for both the castle and museum. You should definitely plan to go to the castle first, but trust me…you’re going to want to check out the museum afterward, so just buy the combo ticket when you check in!

Our tour guide welcomed us right on time and offered everyone some water as we gathered to start our tour. (There is minimal air conditioning and it was realllly hot inside.  Like sweat rolling down your spine hot, so dress accordingly if you go in the summer.  Or better yet, go in the fall!)  Once we were all hydrated, she opened one of the old wooden doors in the lobby, and we were on our way!

Fonthill is beautiful and impressive from the outside, but it really can’t prepare you for what awaits inside.  Built between 1908 and 1912, it has 44 rooms, including 10 bathrooms, and more than 30 staircases (so you can understand why they require you to travel through the house with a guide!) Fonthill was the private home of a man named Henry Mercer, and he built this home…entirely out of concrete. Which, admittedly, doesn’t really sound like material that one would expect to be beautiful.  But it isn’t really the concrete that makes the castle special. It’s the unusual design of the house itself and all of the beautiful handmade tiles (of Mercer’s own design and creation) used inside that make Fonthill spectacular. 

Mercer was an architect, scientist, archeologist, historian, artisan, and more. He designed Fonthill himself, and he actually lived there until his death in 1930.  But Mercer also used his beautiful home as a sort of showcase for the tiles made at his pottery, the Moravian Pottery & Tile Works, which still makes handmade tiles today.  Mercer had developed his own tile designs and even his own tile-making techniques, and Fonthill Castle has room after room of his various tiles on display.

One of the libraries in Fonthill Castle, decorated with Mercer tiles.
One of the libraries in Fonthill Castle, decorated with Mercer tiles.

We started the tour in one of Mercer’s libraries, which houses part of his collection of more than 6,000 books (most of which he has read and left notes inside). You then progress to the largest room in the house, the entertaining and dining room, which features more of his decorative tiles around the windows and fireplaces, as well as some several-thousand-year-old cuneiform tablets, built right into the columns that support the ceiling.

The main entertaining room
The main entertaining room.
One of Mercer's libraries in Fonthill Castle
Another one of Mercer’s libraries in Fonthill Castle.

Throughout the rest of the tour, you wind through various rooms, up and down staircases, and onto the upper floor’s patio.  Nothing is the same shape or size from one room to the next–each room has its own unique look and style, often with mismatched windows and doors. At one point on our tour, our guide indicated that there were actually 10 entrances to that one particular room we were standing in! It always amazes me that people can be so creative or even visualize something like this to the point of being able to build it. I mean, where do you even start to conceptualize a room with 10 entrances???

One of the bedrooms in Fonthill Castle
One of the bedrooms in Fonthill Castle, and the room in which Henry Mercer passed away in 1930.

One of the things that really stood out to us on the tour, though, is that Mercer seemed to be a pretty sentimental guy, and you see this throughout Fonthill Castle with how he honors those who were important to him.  He never married and didn’t have any children, but there were still people in his life whom he valued. First, he had a wealthy aunt, Lela, who gave him money and helped him pursue his love of the arts (after first training to be a lawyer at Harvard), and there is a whole room in Fonthill devoted to the memory of her. Amongst the tiles on the walls and ceilings in this room, you can see her initials in several places.  

View from the upper level patio of Fonthill
The view from the upper-level patio of Fonthill. Note the weather vane with the horse, Lucy, on top of one of the towers. It is from this patio that Mercer also famously set a bonfire to prove his home was fireproof (yet didn’t alert the fire department who came rushing out upon seeing the smoke and flames).  Also, notice how the windows are all different shapes and sizes???

He also honored all the men who helped build Fonthill by including their names somewhere on the walls and ceilings of the castle. Even the horse, Lucy, whose labor contributed to the building of Fonthill is featured on a weather vane with her likeness and name. Perhaps most adorably, though, is a little stairway (that leads up to yet another winding staircase) that was dedicated to his dog, Rollo.  You can even see the pup’s little footprints in the concrete!

The stairway dedicated to Mercer's dog, Rollo
The stairway dedicated to Mercer’s dog, Rollo.

We hadn’t originally bought the combo ticket for the castle and the museum, but once our tour concluded we knew we had to go check out the museum!  The staff was able to upgrade our ticket so we could still get the combo discount, but it took them a while to process it in their system so just go for the combo off the bat.  The museum is only about a mile or two away, so we hopped in the car and drove over to check it out.

Ok. This place. Is NUTS. I have to say that by the time we walked into the Mercer Museum (also designed by Henry Mercer) I was already thinking that dear Mr. Mercer must have been fairly eccentric. But the museum made me think that he was REALLY eccentric (and also a bit of a hoarder!) In his lifetime, the man satisfied his fascination of tools–how they were designed, how they were used, etc.–by collecting more than 25,000 of them and putting them all in this museum. 

When we walked into the main room of the museum and looked up, I couldn’t help but think that I was in a shop in Diagon Alley in a Harry Potter book.  There is…stuff…EVERYWHERE. Hanging from the walls and ceilings. And not only just a random assortment of stuff but several different large collections of similar stuff. There’s not just one cradle hanging from the ceiling but ten.  And not just one old iron stove above the arched ceiling but….twenty. This place is just amazing! (And dusty, take a Claritin!)

The main room in the Mercer Museum
The main room in the Mercer Museum.

The stairwells are a bit of a maze here as well, but we were sure to backtrack because we wanted to see everything.  I don’t even know how one comes to collect so much or thinks of displaying it in this particular way, but the Mercer Museum was unlike anything I have ever seen before.

Tiles
Tiles, tiles, and more tiles!

Suffice it to say, both Fonthill Castle and the Mercer Museum are really fascinating places, and you should make a point to get to both sometime soon.  They are definitely a window into the mind and imagination of a very interesting man, and you will find yourself saying, “Wow!” over and over as you progress through the castle and museum.  You also just can’t go wrong with a day in Doylestown either.   It’s adorable and charming with plenty to see and do, making a day in Doylestown, Fonthill Castle, and the Mercer Museum the perfect day trip from NYC or Philadelphia.

Let me know in the comments below if you make it to the castle soon.  Or if you’ve already been, I’d love to hear what you think about the magical world of Mr. Mercer!

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