On a recent trip to the East Coast, I made it a point to visit the old homes and workshops of three deceased artists.
The Moravian Pottery & Tile Works in Doylestown, Pa., Was the studio of historian Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930), architect, ceramist, and self-taught collector.
He modeled the design of his tiles on the California missions he had seen on his travels. Then he added his own stamp, which could be called “Early Hobbit”.
The complex is now a non-profit history museum, offering guided tours to the public, as well as an annual tile festival, summer musical and film series, artist residences and workshops.
It is also a buzzing workshop, producing among other things mosaic murals, floors, patios, fireplace frames, hearths and architectural friezes. The tiles, available for purchase in the museum shop, are still pressed from the more than 6,000 molds designed by Mercer.
The next day I stopped by his old residence: the adjacent Fonthill Castle. With 44 rooms, 32 staircases, 21 fireplaces, 10 bathrooms and 200 windows, in 1908-1912 the castle (actually a large poured concrete house) cost $ 32,000 to build.
There were dumbwaiters, elevators, call bells and a central heating system.
The larger room, a sort of single large hall, was interrupted every few yards by a concrete column recessed from floor to ceiling (it turns out that Mercer was cautious and had the building built five times stronger than needed).
In fact, almost every square inch of the castle was covered with tiles: floors, walls, windows and fireplace surrounds.
Mercer loved to tell stories, and the subjects of his molds range from mythology to holy grail quests to parables in the Bible. The ceiling of one of his favorite rooms was covered with tiles that told the story of Columbus’ conquest of the New World. Other subjects included animals, family coats of arms, characters from fairy tales, sheaves of wheat, fruit.
Even on a sunny day, the castle was dark and cold. I may have been out west too long, but I couldn’t imagine spending an entire winter there.
Next stop was the museum / studio / former home of Wharton Esherick (1887-1970), an artist, sculptor, and furniture designer who lived in the hills above the town of Paoli, Pennsylvania.
Esherick made a lot of furniture in particular that was beautiful – lamps, desks, tables, chairs – made of wood. Her eccentrically unique, hand-carved living space was filled with sculptures, paintings, magnificent chairs, bespoke sofas, a fireplace, handmade serving utensils, desks with built-in lamps, sliding trays for drawings and engravings, inlaid works. – art floors made from scrap wood.
The house, as was the case with Fonthill, was also incredibly impractical, with narrow spiral staircases, very little open space to move around, and barely any natural light.
A few days later, I drove up to upstate New York and visited Manitoga, aka Dragon Rock, the former home of Russel Wright (1904-1976). Best known as a mid-century designer of clean-lined dinnerware collections in sophisticated hues of chartreuse, teal and slate gray, in 1942 Wright purchased 75 acres of a former logging site and d ‘an abandoned career.
The Japanese-inspired interior-exterior design offered views of the Wright-designed waterfall, quarry pool, and woodland garden. Here, too, inside and out were the jagged, winding granite steps that if I hadn’t sprained my knee the week before in a fall on a New York sidewalk. , might have seemed a little more picturesque to me.
Here, too, the creativity and natural beauty was breathtaking – and slightly underpinned by humidity, cold, moss and mold.
Do not mistake yourself. The three houses were wonderful. I wouldn’t have missed them for the world. However, I could not help but think afterwards that the effort to preserve all human life in amber carries a touch of absurdity.
Does a meticulous catalog really need to be kept up to date with the thousands of Henry Chapman Mercer’s decaying library books?
What’s the use of keeping Esherick’s LL Bean shirts still folded in a drawer under his bed, and on a kitchen shelf the spices, in their little metal boxes, which he used 50 years ago?
A house that is not inhabited begins to disintegrate in a way, is undermined of its vitality, begins to float the air of a moldy grave.
The Catholic tradition of relic veneration, a matter of great hilarity among unbelievers, is actually a glimpse into the realm of eternal life.
In Rome, for example, you can visit the rooms where the beggar Saint Benedict Joseph Labré (1748-1783) lived for two years before his death.
But you don’t kneel in simple rooms. To do this, contemplate the secondary relics kept in the chapel of the neighboring house of San Benedetto Giuseppe Labre ai Monti: the dirty rags that the saint wore when he died.