The building sits along County Route 313 in Doylestown and is eye-catching due to its unique structure—concrete in a spanish mission style, not your typical northeastern PA architecture. For years, as I passed it on my way to and from the tannery, I wondered about the building, but never took the time to stop and see if it was open. This year, the presence of a giant tour bus in the parking lot was a clear signal.
After finding the parking lot, which is behind the building and somewhat hidden from view when you are on the road, I realized that the site was even more unique than it appears. The chimney pots and eaves are decorated with colorful tiles. My iPhone had trouble capturing the detail but every niche is a treasure trove for the eyes.
When I wandered into the entrance—again, on the backside of the building and not visible from the street—I discovered that it is a factory built by Henry Chapman Mercer in 1912 out of hand-mixed concrete (that fact alone boggles the mind) when he realized that the art of tile-making was fast disappearing. His vision led to both his preservation of the traditional patterns and skill sets as well as the building of a thriving industry making the tiles.
The floor of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg is tiled with products of the factory, as are innumerable homes in the Bucks County Area. The picture above is the entry hall of the museum, where visitors are shown a video. It was hard to pay attention to the screen in such surroundings, and I wish I had spent more time in this room examining the different patterns, as well as the antique furniture and implements (not necessarily related to tile-making) that were intermixed with the pottery. It was a Cracker Barrel on steroids. Come to think of it, Cracker Barrel probably got the idea from Henry Chapman Mercer. The Mercer Museum, another of his creations and around the corner from the tile works, is chock-full of such treasures.
All of the tile forms used in the factory through the years have been carefully catalogued and stored. If you so desire, you can commission the reproduction of any one of the patterns by the skilled artisans and interns that still work there.
If you go: The site is run as a historical site as well as a working museum. The $5 admission fee includes a short video on the history and self-guided walking tour of the factory, with tiles and other objects, as well as antique photographs and equipment. Depending on the time of your visit, you may also be able to see artists and interns working the clay and producing or painting tiles. The gift shop is full of the tiles they make, in a wide price range.
Fonthill, Henry Mercer's home, pictured above, is located in the same park as the tile works. though run by a different entity. I didn't have time to tour it but I hope to remedy that this coming year, when I drag my family back to see this amazing place. We will certainly be including enough time to tour the Mercer Museum on the same jaunt.