Monday, September 3, 2007

Labyrinths of Tile and Concrete

Our minds can craft beautiful kinds of labyrinths from a variety of distinct materials. While some of these are abstract, such as poetic verse assembled from a blend of images or musical passages derived from a mixture of folk melodies, others are more concrete. "More concrete" was certainly the motto of Henry Chapman Mercer as he constructed his labyrinthine mansion in eastern Pennsylvania almost a century ago.

Born to a wealthy family in 1856, Mercer studied law at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. After briefly practicing law, he decided that he was more interested in ancient artifacts and folk art, and began collecting these. He also became a master craftsman, and opened a tile works specializing in colorful, unusual designs.

In 1908, he decided to build a mansion for himself, Fonthill, which would also house at least part of his collection. To make it fireproof, and less costly, he elected to construct it from concrete. Concrete also had the advantage of malleability, so he could shape any room or hallway as his wished. Indeed, he crafted a house with passages and stairways leading in almost every direction conceivable, with manifold libraries, studies, bedrooms and so forth. Each room is at a different level, connected to at least a half-dozen others. Naturally there's a tall tower, and even separate stairs and doors for his dog Rollo. Strangely Mercer was to live in this massive castle virtually alone (except for Rollo). Apparently the one woman he proposed to thought he was way too odd!

Scattered throughout the house, and embedded directly in the concrete, are ancient tiles from Babylon and China. Other tiles include a variety of styles and periods. Alphabet tiles arranged on the walls and ceilings spell out numerous messages in Latin, German and English, characterizing the rooms and their collections. One bedroom prominently displays a gruesome tile mosaic of the story of Blackbeard's wives and their untimely deaths; which apparently further put off potential suitors.

When Mercer died in 1930, he bequeathed the house to a historical society, but willed that his housekeeper should reside there as caretaker. She lived there until her own death almost half a century later. When I was growing up I heard about this strange house where a housekeeper would let you in and show you around if it suited her that day! When she passed away, official and more conventional tours began of the house. It's a great place to get lost in a creative artist's dreams.