The Mercer Museum is one of the most peculiarly American phenomena I know. Located in Doylestown, Pa., it is a concrete hulk dedicated to exhibiting the ingenuity of this country’s craftspeople, at least as it is evident in those tools they used at the beginning of the 20th century. Built in 1916 by its benefactor, Henry Mercer, who also designed and constructed the museum and collected the majority of its 40,000 artifacts, the place is a both a period piece and a paean not to what we produced then, such as you might find in either one the Smithsonian institutions or any art American art museum, but to how we worked, chiseled, fired, forged, and otherwise shaped and assembled the objects of everyday life.
As such, the Mercer is a tribute to what historian Lewis Mumford, in one of his lectures on the South in American architecture, described as the architect as tinkerer: the Jeffersonian experimenter and tester who is continually figuring out what to him (rarely, until recently, her) was a new-found land through the ways in which he was building, farming, and generally remaking that place. In that work, it is the assembly of such experiments, rather than the making of an overall order, that matter. So it is at the Mercer.
Henry Mercer was a restless traveler, experimenter, and collector. Having inherited enough money and status to obtain a good education and travel around Europe, as well as to indulge in his interests and passions, he set up a tile works in Doylestown around the turn of the 20th century, picking up on local techniques and images he found in the Moravian churches there—hence the name, Moravian Tile Works. He also began collecting the implements specific to each trade then active in the area, from carpentry to printing to tool making itself, and eventually built three structures on a property a few blocks from what is now a very gentrified downtown area: his own house, Fonthill Castle; the tile works; and the museum to house his collections.
Mercer was the architect and contractor for all three buildings, and here as well experimentation took precedent over planning. Although he apparently was trying to evoke both medieval castles and English country homes, the structures are an amalgamation of forms in which such precedents are difficult to find. That is also because they are monolithic, though not exactly coherent, concrete blocks with little exterior ornament. Mercer’s use of board-formed concrete was then relatively novel, and he experimented with different cement mixtures and ways of pouring. What is more important is that he used the material forthrightly, creating expanses of whitish gray that evoke the local fieldstone in an abstracted manner. He then punctuated the buildings’ faces with windows wherever he felt they were necessary and in whatever shape he felt was appropriate or interesting. Arched walkways and sloped roofs are the only digressions from this monolithic form, and even they have little that defines them in relationship to a Classical or any other kind of order.
Mercer’s architecture is a mess, but bold enough to catch your eye and—through its coloration and use of a wide variety of familiar forms, from windows and doors to those arches—recognizable enough that it seems of its place in Bucks County, Pa. That is especially true after more than a century of weathering, sitting on its own large plot away from the much smaller residential, commercial, and institutional structures around its bulks.
It is the inside of the Mercer Museum that is a true revelation. You enter it today through a 2011 addition by Philadelphia-based Voith & Mactavish Architects. Though the firm's simple shapes and elegant and well-planned spaces funnel you into the main building, I miss the wham-bam arrival into the museum that the original entrance gave you. Once you are inside Henry Mercer’s domain, you are confronted with an atrium that rises the full length of the six-story building. It is a dark and narrow space, borrowing light from the windows into the various galleries all around it. There is no central staircase or circulation system, as you would expect from the party space-slash-stair halls that are by now such a museum cliché. Instead, you find a path through the interior by discovering stairs—some of them straight runs, some of them curving, and some of them hidden away in corners. The collections spill out from the rooms to festoon the walls and hang from the ceilings in every room, so that find yourself looking up at, then at eye level into, as you climb, and later down at boats and barrels as you wander around the room.
There is an order to massive mess. Each room is devoted to a different craft or trade, and Mercer laid out the various chisels and picks or the typesetting trays and chutes each one employed in such a manner that you can understand how they were used. Unlike the Colonial Williamsburg displays that opened two decades later, what he did not do is reenact how things were made, creating a complete environment. The focus is on the tools, all of which were obviously well-used before they wound up in his collection. The relationships between the hand and the implement, but also between that object and what it helped shape, are implied, but never stated. You have to figure it out for yourself, as I saw some visitors doing as they tried to mimic the twists and thrusts a wood carving tool might make.
Only in the upper room devoted to the tiles Mercer designed and made (which are also on more abundant display in the other structures on the property) do you get a sense of finish and finality. Used on columns, as wall covering and fireplace surrounds, these colorful modular elements are deliberately primitive, evoking the self-taught techniques and the traditional German motifs common among the local makers from whom Mercer learned. They also evoke the aesthetic of the Arts & Crafts movement and remind you of the fact that Mercer visited several of those workshops in England and saw his own enterprise in that tradition.
When I posted a few images from my return visit to the Mercer Museum, I was surprised at how quickly and viscerally my online friends and followers reacted. The strangeness of the atrium, with its rough-and-ready concrete elements punctuated by hopscotch windows, the profusion of artifacts that were obviously not meant to be looked at, but to be used, and the confrontation of all these elements with each other is so different from the kind of polite displays that museums offer us today as to catch people’s eyes. It also recalls, however, different structures of a more recent vintage: those installations made by artists such as Tyree Guyton in Detroit (the Heidelberg Project) and Theaster Gates in Chicago (the Stony Island Arts Bank), for instance. Assembling found materials with no apparent plan but with a love for the worn, the used, and the fact that the artifacts were part of a community culture, these makers are able to evoke and crystalize parts of the world and people we too often overlook and do not take seriously as creators or human beings who make. I would not claim Henry Mercer, a privileged white man whose monument stands in a tony community, as a direct precedent for their work, but the Mercer Museum certainly shows us that American history is not just one of Colonial and Classical and later Modernist structures housing polite and finished artifacts, but also one of restless experimentation, assembly, and display of what we as a varied people have made. It makes this institution more than worth a visit.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.