Sometimes, it’s all about perspective. The first time I visited Fonthill—once a private home and now a museum—it left me cold. Quite literally. The six-story concrete castle, which was constructed between 1908 and 1912, is not particularly inviting, and I was certain its creator and first resident, Henry Chapman Mercer, must have been a hardhearted man. On my next visit, after learning more about Mercer, I saw things differently. He may have been a bachelor and an eccentric, but he was also an avid dog lover and advocate for all creatures. The rooms were suddenly warmer.
Mercer, who came from a privileged background, was a Harvard-educated antiquarian as well as archaeologist, collector and ceramist. Fonthill was the first of three buildings he constructed in Doylestown, Pa. Inspired by the castles of Europe, Mercer incorporated characteristics of Medieval, Gothic and Byzantine architecture into his behemoth, which boasts 44 rooms, 32 stairwells, 200 windows and 18 fireplaces. Thousands of pieces of pottery, which he amassed during his worldwide travels, are incorporated into the walls and the ceilings. It is surely no accident that in Mercer’s original bedroom, the delicate blue-and-white Delft tiles all show images of domestic animals. Where there is no pottery, there are paintings or photos. I also noticed that the photos of his dogs are all large—larger, in fact, than those of his father.
Dogs played an important role in Mercer’s life. Most obvious is Rollo, whose beefy paw prints can be seen deep in the treads of the stairway in the Columbus Room that leads to the tower. I was touched by the words “Rollo’s Stairs,” spelled out in colorful ceramic letters on the stairway’s risers. Because Mercer was a private man and destroyed much of the personal information that might have given historians a window into his life, no one knows for sure if the impressions were intentional. However, Fonthill’s site manager Edward Reidell thinks they probably were; as he notes, “It would have been easy enough to take a trowel and wipe out the prints in the wet cement.” And, he points out, there are smaller paw prints in the stairs to the crypt, which was built a couple of years earlier when Rollo would have been a puppy, and in the Mercer Museum and Moravian Tileworks, Mercer’s other two concrete edifices. More compelling is the tribute he penned in his notebook after Rollo’s death in 1916: “May his footsteps outlast many generations of men on his stairways at Fonthill and the Bucks County Historical Society.”
There is no doubt that Rollo was a favorite among the long line of Chesapeake Bay Retrievers who made up Mercer’s family. There were more than a dozen of the big, reddish-brown dogs in his adult life, though because he often recycled names, it’s hard to know exactly how many. Author James Michener talked about Mercer riding his bike into town with a pair of dogs running behind him, and when Rollo became ill, Mercer lifted him into the back of the car so the dog could accompany him on daily trips to the historical society. Reidell references notes that indicate the paperboys spoke of Mercer playing with the dogs on the vast property, and his records show veterinary bills, dog licenses and tins of dog cookies, an almost revolutionary concept in the early 1900s. According to the local paper, when taxes were paid and licenses purchased anonymously for all of the town’s loose dogs, Mercer was behind the generous deed. He was also said to break up dog fights.
Historians offer two theories on Mercer’s choice of the Chessie. One is the connection to his family. According to an article in Mercer’s papers, his great-grandfather, John Francis Mercer, received one of two puppies saved when an English ship sank off the coast of Maryland in 1807. The puppies, crossbred with local Hounds and Retrievers, were the ancestors of the current Chesapeake Bay Retriever. The other theory is that these dogs were treated so harshly in the development of the breed—forced to retrieve hundreds of birds from icy waters—that they earned his sympathy.