You never know where people are going to end up. Steven and I met composer Sergio Cervetti and dancer and choreographer Kenneth Rinker in New York City in the early 1980’s. After leaving New York in 1993, we lost touch with Kenneth and Sergio, who subsequently departed Brooklyn bound for Doylestown, PA. To begin our exploration of that charming Bucks County township, this week’s Listen Up features a video of one of Kenneth and Sergio’s many inspired artistic collaborations over the past 51 years. This short excerpt (4:02) from the dance piece Night Trippers features music composed by Sergio Cervetti with choreography by Kenneth Rinker. Recorded during a performance of the Kenneth Rinker Dance Company at The Joyce Theater in 1986, the video includes the segments “Fairies in America” and “Oberon’s Puck” (a duet danced here by Kenneth with Timm Fujii). For us, sharing this video brings the past into the present, quite apt for Doylestown whose motto is “Preserving the past. Embracing the future.” We were sorry that we were unable to visit with Kenneth and Sergio on this trip to Doylestown – for now, the video brings them back to the forefront of our memory — but we hope to get a chance to reconnect with them the next time we float down the Delaware River. You just never know.
Inside the six-story Mercer Museum, 40,000 handmade objects – all pieces integral to life before the Industrial Revolution — are numbered, catalogued, and hung from the building’s center hall rafters or gathered into small rooms according to craft or utility. The museum is a huge concrete time capsule created by anthropologist and collector, Henry Mercer. (To some degree, Mercer could be seen as the ultimate hoarder. Having grown up in a hoarder’s house where each and every item was catalogued in my mother’s mind, I felt oddly at home enveloped by the museum’s crowded chaos.) Upon entering the dark formidable tower, Henry Mercer’s collection may seem random and excessive, but there is precise method to his madness.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, a powerful change had swept through Europe and America altering society’s agrarian and artisan bedrock. For nearly a century, automation, the creation of factories, and the shear power of mass production slowly replaced the trades. What was once done by the cooper, the blacksmith or the weaver could soon be done faster, cheaper, and in easily replicated multiples by machines. Everyday items became standardized. Even the tools with which people made things were now made in a factory. If I had a hammer, my hammer was exactly like your hammer – and so was everyone else’s.
As a man who studied civilization through artifacts, Henry Mercer was intrigued and concerned about this major shift in society. The disappearing world around him became his active dig site. He limited his collection to handmade tools and the products of those tools made in America prior to 1850. Starting in Bucks County, he visited auctions, old barns and antique stores to build his inventory. He kept ledgers of who, what, when, where and why with regard to every item and prominently marked the artifacts with corresponding numbers. Although many of the objects in the museum are beautiful, Mercer did not think of them as pieces of art, they were archeological evidence.
Also a designer and tile maker, Mercer was a member of the Arts and Crafts movement, employing artisans to create handmade Moravian pottery and tiles at his Tile Works building adjacent to his home. Throughout his home, Fonthill Castle, he displayed his own designs as well as centuries-old tiles from around the world. His designs, as well as his extensive collection, reflect his deep respect for artisans and their products. By spending a day in Doylestown, immersed in the world of Henry Mercer, it becomes clear that objects are more than things. From the bright blue whaling boat to the humble pin, they are utility, necessity, frivolity, beauty, adornment and economy. They are symbols of what a civilization needed, desired and treasured, and each item captures a piece of society and culture that disappeared, save for these tangible artifacts. And the day made me think about our present relationship with things. As the Technological Revolution magically turns objects into terabytes, who is our Henry Mercer, creating a concrete collection of everyday “stuff” that will tell our 20th and 21st century stories?
Industrialist Henry Ford once said that the Mercer Museum was the only museum worth visiting in the United States.
A half hour north of Philadelphia, Doylestown is a small borough with less than 9,000 residents. Established in 1785, a tremendous amount of history and natural beauty is packed into the historic downtown and the surrounding Bucks County countryside. Much of what we explored during our visit centered around the archeologist, collector, and tile maker, Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930), who was born into a wealthy Doylestown family. The “Mercer Mile” is made up of three concrete buildings designed and built by Henry Mercer: his home, Fonthill Castle; the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works (still in operation); and, the Mercer Museum. Fonthill Castle is open to the public by guided tour only. This “Castle for the New World” was built in 1908-1912 as both a private home and showroom for the Moravian tiles designed and produced at the Tile Works on the adjacent property. Handmade tiles based on reissued Arts and Crafts designs are available for purchase when you visit the Tile Works museum. The final poured-in-place concrete structure on the tour is the 6-story Mercer Museum, which includes the original museum opened in 1904 to house Henry Mercer’s permanent collection of handmade everyday items, and a new addition completed in 2011. Changing exhibits are curated by the staff in the modern wing, including the current highly recommended show, “Long May She Wave: A Graphic History of the American Flag,” which continues through November 6, 2016.
After or between museum tours we recommend a walk around the downtown shops, restaurants, and historic homes. Stephanie’s Pub on Main Street is a good, friendly place to stop for a pulled pork sandwich, along with an order of their special crab fries to share. If you have time after the meal, the James A. Michener Art Museum (located in what was once the Bucks County Jail) is within walking distance and is dedicated to the arts and culture of the Bucks Country region. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and philanthropist is considered to have been Doylestown’s most famous resident (though musical theater buffs contend that the title belongs to Oscar Hammerstein II).
We’d like to thank our friend, Don Ehman, for showing us around Doylestown and Mercer Mile. It’s always so good to spend time with you, buddy. Happy trails!
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