About forty miles north of Philadelphia stands a medieval-looking castle and pottery built entirely of reinforced concrete, save for a collection of tile-shingled towers and chimneys. Built in the 1910s, the concrete campus was the home and office-cum-factory for the American archaeologist and ceramicist Henry Chapman Mercer.
I first visited the castle (christened Fonthill) and pottery as a wary pre-teen on a day off from school, but the structures have lingered in my memory since—and lived on independently, of course, as a historic home and pottery. Like many of his Arts-and-Crafts-minded peers, Mercer admired the ancient and medieval arts and architecture of “less hurried civilization[s].” He sourced architectural flourishes from Spanish missions and Yucatan temples, Dutch barns and Byzantine monasteries. The total effect is a pastiche of old-world architecture achieved in the humblest of materials, which I suspect looks grotesquely, blasphemously American. But over a century the concrete has weathered enthrallingly: dark streaks evince where rainwater streams from windowsills, a mossy sheen coats walls that linger in the shade of nearby trees.
The aged but sturdy concrete attests to Mercer’s tolerance—obsession?—for imperfect surfaces, which I first cherished in his Moravian tiles, all made at the pottery. The decorative tiles especially luxuriate in what I imagine Susan Sontag might have meant by “the sensuous surface of the art,” where the “luminousness of the thing itself” is patently apparent. According to the pottery's archives, at one point Mercer offered 57 different possible tile finishes, but the most memorable tiles for me honor the dry local red clay used to create them. On a tile I took home after that first visit, an unvarnished earthen rabbit cavorts on glazed forest-green ground. More recently, a tile declaiming Literae docent, domum docent (“Literature teaches the home”) demanded to be added to my bookshelf.
Mercer’s fastidious approach to making, largely still used at the pottery today, was responsible for the unique and enduring results. Seeking to catalog American industry, arts, and craft as those of ancient civilizations had been documented, Mercer is said to have adapted his technique for the tiles from the Pennsylvania Dutch, using their illustrative stove-plates as his first designs—thus the Moravian name. He sourced the red clay from his farmer neighbors; today it comes from Lake Towhee, a half-hour drive west. The clay was mixed with water that, at the height of production, was drawn from the well below by a rejigged Model T engine. Potters cut the clay to blanks of the correct size and thickness, then hand-press designs with plaster molds cast from Mercer’s originals.
The remarkable translucency of designs like the Literature tile comes from a slip underglazing technique that Mercer patented. The pressed surface is coated in a loose gray slip, dipped in colored glaze, then hand-buffed just enough to resurface the red clay in deliciously tactile motifs. The most intricate designs, like the decorative mosaics at the Pennsylvania capitol building (perhaps the pottery’s most prestigious commission) or figural scenes of harvesters, musicians, or explorers, require colored glazes to be hand-painted. These days on the tour, one occasionally finds a potter in the final room armed with paintbrushes, buckets of glaze, and a stack of freshly pressed tiles to glaze.
At the pottery’s peak in the early 20th century, the brocade and mosaic designs were the icing on their proverbial cake. The kilns were kept running mostly by large orders for quarry tiles, undecorated tiles only a few inches square, which were all processed and cut by hand in Doylestown. Thousands of them line the floors of Fonthill, and they are underfoot at iconic American structures like Isabella Stewart Gardner’s eclectic home in Boston (now the eponymous museum) and The Hispanic Society Museum & Library in New York. But Mercer is oft quoted avowing that if quarry tiles had been all that he had produced, he “might as well make soap.”
The manual craft of making a Moravian tile, from the humblest floor tiles to the most intricate mosaics, is as evident as any design it bears. Shades of red remember where in the kiln the tiles were placed, shallow grooves recall the potter’s hand as they made a definitive cut. “Perhaps the way one tells how alive a particular art form is,” Sontag mused, “is by the latitude it gives for making mistakes in it and still being good.”