Bruce Bentzman's Suburban Soliloquy # 19


On a summer afternoon, my friends and I were moping about with nothing much to do, when someone decided it was time to pay another visit to the Witch of Fonthill.

Pulling out our wallets and purses, turning our pockets inside out, we examined all the money we had to see if there was enough. Then the group of us cramming into somebody’s car, whoever was fortunate to have a car that day, would trek the twenty-five miles into the country. It was still rural then, with plenty of farms and few houses. Our destination was Doylestown, the County seat of this rather large Bucks County.

Fonthill was located on the far edge of Doylestown, standing at the center of a large expanse of lawn. The approach was a narrow driveway lined with ancient tall trees. This was the dream house of famed renaissance man, and local eccentric, Henry Chapman Mercer. To all appearances, a sandcastle. Between 1908 and 1912 Henry Mercer, without benefit of a formal training in architecture, poured his castle out of pails of concrete. The building rose asymmetrical and irregular, forty-four rooms and thirty-four staircases, perforated with tall Romanesque windows. Roughly hewed, the walls, walks, and balustrade gave the romantic appearance of centuries of decay. He had been inspired by the castles he saw during his youth, when floating down the Danube on raft and houseboat.

The arched door would open a crack and half a face, withered and full of suspicion, would peer up at us. We announced that we wanted to take the tour of Fonthill. The one eye scanned us up and down and the door opened a little wider, wide enough so that we could hand in our money. There, in the crack of the door, the old woman counted the money, once, twice, three times. Then she would count our number, once, twice, three times. Then she would count the money again. We had given her more than enough. And when we asked for our change, she didn’t seem to hear us. We’d ask again, once, twice, three times. Reluctantly, she would hand back the change, using the smallest possible coinage, stopping as if finished when it was not yet enough. And before we could spur her to continue returning to her count, she would
demand to first see the money she had already given us, and would count it to make sure she hadn’t given us too much, and still she would forget to give us the rest. Finally the door was opened wide and we were permitted to enter Fonthill.

Inside the cave-like home, the vaulted rooms, stairs, columns, bookcases, gave every appearance of having been carved out of rock. In fact they had all been poured into casts, and were part of the actual building. Electrical wires and water pipes ran along the walls and not inside them. The walls were devoid of panelling or plaster, but they were embossed with tiles
collected from around the world and from Mercer’s own manufacture. These colourful tiles were Mercer’s contribution to the Arts and Crafts Movement. After Fonthill, he built on the corner of his property the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, another poured concrete building that has the appearance of a Spanish mission.

Up and down staircases the Witch of Fonthill would lead us, with strict instructions not to touch anything. The house was filled with treasure, with books, with ancient artifacts that Henry Mercer had collected and installed. An archaeologist, anthropologist, artist, historian, and dog lover, his house is chock-ful of wonders, but just to gesture in the direction of an item was enough to bring the wrath of the ever-watchful witch. “But I only wanted to know what that was...”  The Witch of Fonthill did not know what anything was. She had been Mercer’s housekeeper. She spoke of him as if he was a god, and preserved the house as he had left it, but with no apparent understanding of the symbols she had been left to guard. Many of the books were rotting away in place because she did not know how to take proper care of them, except perhaps to dust. She even became confused during the tour, and rooms might get passed through twice, each time to receive a different name. Large areas were overlooked, and one part of the house, beyond the kitchen, in which the old witch herself lived, was always off limits. She became particularly hard of hearing when asked why Mercer did not marry. [He probably remained single because of a lifetime curse of gonorrhea following a youthful indiscretion during his European vacation.]  It wasn’t long before the tour was completed and we were shoved out the front door. The tour was never the same twice.

We were not bad kids. Unfortunately, at times, we were not particularly compassionate. And since we did not understand old age, we rather cruelly disrespected it, and, for a lark, used it for amusement.

Miss Laura M. Long was twelve at the turn of the last century. While working as Mercer’s housekeeper she became wedded to Mercer’s assistant, Frank K. Swain. Henry Chapman Mercer died in his dream house in 1930 of Bright’s disease and myocarditis. Fonthill was left in trust to the community to become the museum it is today. But the very generous Mercer made a special provision allowing Frank and Laura Swain to live their lives out at Fonthill. He had left the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works to Frank Swain as well. Mr Swain died in 1954. Laura died in 1975. As young adults my friends and I did not have the sense to befriend her, to access this resource into the immediate past, which already felt like a very distant past to us. We let go an opportunity to learn of that remarkable man, Henry Chapman Mercer. We were no different than the local kids who invaded her privacy to peek through the windows of that strange house, until they were chased away by a screeching Laura brandishing a broom. It was town’s kids who named her the Witch of Fonthill.

At the very least, we should have let her keep the change.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the nineteenth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.