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The Mercer Museum

Of all the icons a nice historic town in Bucks County could adopt as a cultural icon, the very last one that springs to mind would be a huge concrete building built by a lawyer. And yet this is exactly what the Mercer Museum is. This six-story reinforced concrete castle dominates Doylestown’s historic district, with a haphazard arrangement of arched and square windows, with towers and gabled roofs, all made of a material so crude that you can see the impression of the planks and burlap that made up the molds into which the concrete slurry was poured.

Yet somehow, the Mercer Museum has a grandeur that you cannot help but admire. And grandeur aside, it’s amazing to think that it’s the work of a single gifted amateur. Henry Mercer was a successful lawyer without formal training in architecture or building, but between 1913 and 1916, he designed and built this enormous structure with help from eight laborers and a horse named Lucy. Mercer and his team worked six days a week

to complete the job. Now, it’s become such an icon for the town that it appears as a line drawing on the town’s street signs and houses Bucks County’s historical society.

But no matter how odd the outside of this building is, nothing compares to the puzzling contents of the museum it houses, which was also a brainchild of the prodigious Henry Mercer. At the turn of the 20th century, Mercer noticed that industrialization was wiping out trades that had once been part of every town or village. Small looms used to make rough cloth for everyday use. Local wood workers and blacksmiths would create tools for everyday use in their towns. The everyday tools of fishermen, farmers, butchers, and other tradesmen were no longer to be seen every day. Except for the Amish models, horse-drawn coaches were thinning out too. Even the wooden statues outside cigar stores were vanishing. Part of America’s past was slipping away, and to Mercer this meant two things: It would be relatively easy and cheap to buy up these artifacts, and essential to preserve them. And in the concrete castle, that’s exactly what he did.

Walking into the Mercer Museum is an odd experience. Around a huge hall six stories high run galleries with sealed rooms crammed with tools of various trades. Hanging from the rafters (actually, there are no rafters...it’s more like hanging from the concrete) are boats, carriages, bicycles, saws, grist mills, and baskets of all shapes and sizes. Grotesque cigar store statues leer at you around corners. Down the winding corridors off the main hall are exhibit rooms that contain huge quantities of decorative tile and iron fireguards. There’s even an outdoor balcony on the sixth floor.

But the esoteric nature of the Mercer collection isn’t the only weird thing about the exhibits. You don’t have to look hard to find weird images. Tiles and iron fireguards show devils steering families into arguments and walking skeletons beating living people. There’s a Victorian vampire-killing kit featuring a handgun with silver bullets, a combination stake and crucifix, and vials for holy water. (Too bad the authenticity of this kit is in doubt: Analysis of the glue, ink, and paper in the case show some suspicious anomalies.) Upstairs in a mezzanine above the sixth floor is a gallows with the trapdoor open, with a noose, handcuffs, and cudgels behind glass. And this is a place they take kids on school trips!

So if you’re looking to kill some time before going hunting for albino cannibals, ringing rock gardens, or Rosicrucian temples in Bucks County, you can’t go far wrong with a trip to South Pine Street in Doylestown. The Mercer Museum ranks high in the charts of weird places that have been assimilated into the community. But even though the town does embrace Mercer’s concrete castle, there’s no denying it’s a strange and inspiring place.

You can read about all of Pennsylvania’s Roadside Oddities and other curious attractions if Weird Pennsylvania.

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