One of my closest friends, Alan, lives in Paris, France, so we don’t get to see each other too often. My wife Sandy and I are crazy about him and his wife Martine. Wonderful people. Smart, gracious and, if the conditions are right, up for pretty much anything. Alan and I have been buddies for 50 years. We met at college in Vermont lo those many years ago. He and Martine were in the USA for a couple of weeks recently for family gatherings and to tour New England a bit, and they also visited Sandy and me for a few days. We all had a terrific time together.
The weather was hot while they were with us. By 10 AM each day the sun was kicking ass. Sandy and I had hoped to show Alan and Martine some beautiful outdoor sights in Philadelphia or its environs. Maybe Morris Arboretum. Maybe Longwood Gardens. Maybe Philly’s Old City section and its nearby Penn’s Landing waterfront. But we scratched all of those ideas off our list. None of us felt like dealing with the heat. Where to, then?
I’ve written a number of times about Doylestown, PA, a fine village in Bucks County about 20 miles from Philadelphia. Doylestown was the home of Henry Chapman Mercer, a talented and brilliant chap with eclectic interests who lived from 1856 to 1930. He designed and constructed three large and unusual buildings in Doylestown, one of which, the Mercer Museum, fit the bill as an indoor destination for Sandy, me and our friends. On the first full day of Alan’s and Martine’s visit, that’s where we headed.
Henry Mercer was a traveler, an archaeologist, an outside-the-box thinker and a collector of myriad objects. He also was well-heeled, a circumstance that allowed him to indulge his passions and to live pretty much as he chose. The collecting bug bit him early in life and took hold very strongly in the 1890s when he saw the effects that industrialization was having on the American way. Before they would be entirely phased out and disappear, he decided to amass examples of the handmade objects that once were, and in some cases still were used in typical homes, in everyday trades, on farms and in workshops. The tools and household and recreational goods, in other words, that defined how folks lived in the 1700s through roughly 1850.
Mercer spent much time at junk dealers, auctions and country sales, and often for little money purchased an astonishing array of items, thousand and thousands of them. But where would he keep all of this stuff? No problem. The amazing Mercer designed a sprawling idiosyncratic castle of sorts to house his Americana collection. A small team of workers built the structure in just a few years. The Mercer Museum opened in 1916, and Henry immediately donated it and the stuff to the Bucks County Historical Society, which to this day owns and runs the operation.
I was pretty certain that Alan and Martine would like the Mercer Museum. It’s not well-known, why I don’t understand. But it is fascinating and maybe one of a kind. The building alone is worthy of examination, a concrete behemoth awash with windows and topped with a dizzying display of towers and chimneys and who-knows-whats. Mercer selected concrete as his primary construction material because he desired a fireproof enclosure for his collection, and it certainly seems as though he made the correct choice. To date, no flames.
And the collection? “Incredible” is an understatement. Thirty thousand or more things to eyeball, many of which you’re not likely to encounter elsewhere. A well sweep (it drew water from wells in pre-pump days), a stagecoach, a hay rake with 24-inch-long teeth, components of a water power saw mill . . . not to mention smaller items such as tools used in hat making, tinsmithing, coopering, the healing arts, you get the idea. Mercer suspended some of the big boys (a dory and a whaleboat, for instance) and also some of the little guys from the ceiling and arches of the museum’s large central atrium, where the effect is hallucinatory. It takes long looks to figure out just what it is you’re looking at, despite the quite good signage. And Mercer apparently had a real sense of the whimsical, as chairs, chests, baby cribs and other artifacts I couldn’t easily identify dangle from the ceiling, often upside down.
Most of the tools and results of America’s myriad trades, thankfully I suppose, are much more neatly displayed. They are divided up, by occupational use or other categories, in rooms, alcoves and niches that surround the atrium on six different floor levels.
Brown is the color of the day at the Mercer Museum, since so many of the objects on display, especially the hefty ones, are made of wood. Alan and Martine and Sandy and I took our time in the Mercer forest, but after two hours started to run out of gas. Alan said the museum is one of the best he has ever been in, and I concur. This trip to Mercer was my third or fourth. A fellow visitor, whom I chatted up slightly while we both gazed at eight-foot-tall High Wheeler bicycles hanging from the ceiling above a western Concord stagecoach, got it right when she said that “[Henry Mercer] makes hoarders look good.”
A few suggestions to the interested. Go, definitely go to the Mercer Museum. But make the voyage on a sunny day, as there is a paucity of artificial light there. And skip the dead of winter. The museum is unheated.
As mentioned hundreds of words above, the day following the Mercer experience featured temperatures just as disagreeable as its predecessor’s. Once again, an indoor attraction it would have to be. Where? (To be continued)
(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)
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