Monday, April 23, 2007

The Mercer Mile: Walking in the footsteps of weird genius in Doylestown, Bucks County

The Easton Road starts deep in South Philadelphia and does a Mummer’s strut, dressed up as Route 611, north through Bucks County, then curves along the Delaware River right on into Easton. Today, we’re in the middle of that map, where the road is known as Main Street in Doylestown, the county seat of Bucks, hometown to such luminaries as James Michener and Margaret Mead. And our newest hero, Henry Chapman Mercer.

Doylestown’s a fine walking town, so we park the ragtop and make sure our sneakers are tied tight. We check into a sweet little B&B right next to the Doylestown Historical Society. It’s just a stone’s throw from the beginning of what folks here call The Mercer Mile, a stretch between wondrous castles built by the genius Henry Mercer. We can’t wait to get to know him.

The Mercer Museum looks medieval, seemingly indestructible with 6,500 tons of concrete poured back in 1913. Henry wanted this place fireproof, to keep his amazing collection of pre-industrial tools safe for generations. A collection of tools, you say? Sounds a bit ho-hum, you think? Why not just go in the basement and nose around Dad’s workshop?

Well, tell that to our dropping jaws as we walk in and look up. We’re inside a massive center atrium, more than six stories high. And look what’s hanging from the walls and ceilings: Cider presses, a horse-drawn fire engine, cigar-store Indians, a whaling boat, a Conestoga wagon, anvils, lobster traps and fishnets, and coopered barrels of all sizes. “Tools of the Nationmaker” is how Henry Mercer defined his collection, and he put more than 50,000 oddities in this strange palace where Willy Wonka and Dr. Seuss would feel right at home.

Mercer knew that concrete was the way to go, because a few years before he imagined the museum, he built himself a concrete home, called Fonthill, at the other end of the Mercer Mile. It’s a lovely walk through this old borough, with its 19th century homes, unique boutiques and Norman Rockwell charm. We time our visit to the museum so we can stop for lunch along the way to Fonthill.

After gawking all morning at old-world tools, the perfect renewal is some good old-world pizza. And we find it at Spatola’s on Main Street, about halfway along the Mercer Mile. They bake a white pizza to die for in a wood-fired oven, using hardwood like oak. “It’s gotta burn hot, but oak has no smoky flavor,” says our pizza baker. He claims to be a refugee from South Philly – down at the other end of the Easton Road – where they know a thing or two about pizza. The crust is thin and has a perfect crunch, the cheese and roasted garlic fused together in the wood heat. It’s good enough to order a second, something to munch on as we stroll to Fonthill.

Fonthill is more crazy Wonka-Seuss weirdness. It’s 44 rooms of hand-mixed concrete, windows set at madcap angles, swing-able chandeliers, books and more books, Rube Goldberg heating, plumbing and intercom systems. And tiles. Beautiful, amazing, a multitude of shapes and complex mosaics, most designed by Henry Mercer, and some from his collection that goes back 6,000 years or so from Mesopotamia.

Our guide takes us through Mercer’s “concrete castle for the New World” and tells stories of his incredibly rich life. A lawyer, archeologist, curator, collector, artisan and tile maker, Henry built Fonthill next door to his third concrete wonder and his prosperous business, the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. He didn’t start all this till he was in his 50’s, which gives us all hope. We look down toward the Tile Works from one of the outdoor roosts along Fonthill’s castle roofline, a perfect perch where Henry could smoke a cigar, enjoy a brandy and watch the sun set over Bucks County.

We take our final stroll along the Mercer Mile to the Tile Works. Here we visit with artists still crafting the same Mercer designs that decorate the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg, as well as other architectural marvels around the world.

We can’t help but stare into a fired-up kiln – an intensely hot oven where batches of Mercer tiles are glazing – without recalling the perfection of that white pizza from Spatola’s hardwood kiln. Which leads us, of course, to start thinking about dinner along Doylestown’s restaurant row.

It’s a happy walk through golden light back to the B&B, where we see the ragtop parked in front, antsy for that Easton Road. Maybe we’ll head out tomorrow, or the next day, depending on how many shops and menus we can tackle here in Doylestown. And when we do, we’ll roll out past the weird genius of concrete castles and keep our eyes peeled for you along the bends and backroads.

When you hit the road, here's where to stop. (For all a map with photos of all these places and more, go to

The Mercer Museum

Like nothing you’ve ever seen. As if all the weird uncles in the world got together with their attic collections of saws and hat racks, stovepipes and forceps, wooden Indians and iron artwork. All inside a most improbable and probably indestructible concrete castle. Looming over 84 S. Pine Street in Doylestown and online at

Spatola’s Pizza

Man, this is good pizza. We fell for the white w/garlic, fresh from the oak-burning brick oven. A tiny little spot full of flavor; set off the street a bit at 304 N. Main St. Call ahead at 215.489.2882.

Fonthill and the Moravian Pottery & Tile Works

Who knew that concrete could seem so comfy? Henry Mercer’s home would have been perfect for a Dr. Seuss character. And next door his pottery works still cooks up the same beautiful tiles that decorate architectural marvels worldwide. Tours at Fonthill by reservation at The Tile Works is run by the Bucks County Parks Department. Online at

James A. Michener Art Museum

Here is the old county jail, transformed into a world-class art museum. Get into the life of Michener, the author and Bucks County citizen. And the permanent collection of “Pennsylvania Impressionists” - Bucks County painters from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s – is wonderful. Just across from the Mercer Museum. Start your tour online at

Dance to the music, shop till you drop. (Montage of shop signs and Puck sign)

Everywhere we turn there’s another charming boutique, coffee shop, jeweler, theater – even a great independent bookstore where the employees actually read books! The blues joint Puck is a groovy little nightclub on Printers Alley.

The Knight House Restaurant

At the foot of Doylestown’s restaurant row is a menu and wine list meant for our hearts. We were knocked silly by the Maine Lobster and Maryland Crab combo with chipolte cream. Save room for unreal flourless chocolate cake and try not to pass up the list of ports. You only live once. 96 West State Street; 215.489.9900. Sneak a peek at the menu at

Historic 1814 House B&B

Ask for the Mercer suite (naturally), soak in a Jacuzzi built for two and gaze into the fireplace, if not into each other’s eyes. A lovely garden patio and sweet little tea room make this a cozy stay an easy stroll away from the Mercer Museum. 50 S. Main St. Reservations at

Raymer’s Homemade Candy

Mark and Sue Raymer mix their own creamy blends of chocolate and make candies of all kinds that are well worth the guilt. Get a load of the honey nougat, put a few pecan turtles in your pocket and thank heaven this is a good town for walking off the goodness. 21 E. Oakland Ave. 215.348.3788.

Ok, it's your turn. Let us know what you find out there, won't you? Drop us a line at shunpiker

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