Friday, June 24, 2011
Trash to treasure--Henry Chapman Mercer
Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee...
Henry Chapman Mercer was born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and attended Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Though he worked as a lawyer for a time, he later gave up the practice in favor of archaeology. In the early 1890s he was appointed Curator of American and Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum.
A turning point in his life came in 1897 when Mercer became concerned with the destruction of early American society, which he saw being replaced by industrialism. Seeing a jumble of old agricultural tools and household utensils for sale, he realized very quickly that American pre-industrial history was being displaced. Mercer abandoned his job at the museum and began “rummaging the bake ovens, wagon houses, cellars, haylofts, smokehouses, garrets, and chimney corners” for what would later be known as Americana. Mercer collected all kinds of American artifacts and tools from hoes and forks to plows and pottery.
In 1913 he began work on a museum to house his growing collection of more than twenty-five thousand objects. As part of his collecting, Mercer became interested in the pottery of Pennsylvania Germans. Concerned that this craft was dying out, Mercer apprenticed himself to one of the few authentic potters in upper Bucks County to learn all about clays, glazes, and kilns. In 1899 Mercer built the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, which still operates in Doylestown today. The first tiles he produced were based on early German stove plates, which Mercer himself collected.
By 1900 Mercer was becoming an important artisan who was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement in America. No doubt aware of the building contracts being sought for the State Capitol in 1902, Mercer made a point to suggest the idea to architect Joseph Huston of folk-art tile for the building’s floor. He said that his tile would better harmonize with the white marble Capitol walls, than the original marble floor that Huston had envisioned in his designs for the Capitol’s first floor. Huston accepted the idea of allowing both folk and fine art to coexist in the Capitol building, proving that he was interested in this art form.
Mercer decided that he would trace the history of the Commonwealth from prehistoric times to 1906 using mosaics grouted into the floor. Huston approved the concept, and Mercer went on to produce 368 mosaics. They were installed beginning at the Capitol’s north wing entrance, and continued chronologically through the building until ending at the south wing entrance. The result is the largest piece of artwork in the Capitol. In all, Mercer would produce thousands of clay field tiles for the floor of the Capitol — the most of any building containing his tiles. For the sixteen thousand square feet of tile, the Commonwealth was billed three dollars per square foot.
Though the Capitol is the largest single collection of Mercer’s tiles, it may not be the most famous. The casino at Monte Carlo, Rockefeller’s New York estate in Pocantico Hills, and Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood all boast Mercer tiles in quantity. After the completion of the Capitol commission, Mercer went on to build his own unique house called Fonthill, located adjacent to his tile works in Doylestown. The innovation of this domestic structure lay in Mercer's use of reinforced concrete. Although reinforced concrete was commonly used for industrial buildings (Mercer had already utilized this kind of concrete for his tile factory and his museum), it was an unusual building material for a house. Reinforced concrete, coarse-textured and unconcealed, covers both the exterior and interior of Fonthill. Mercer was one of the first artists in the United States to recognize the aesthetic value of exposed concrete for a modern structure. He also built his own museum to house the artifacts of Americana that he had collected. Today the Mercer Museum is home to over forty thousand artifacts of early American society.
Henry Chapman Mercer [Wikipedia]