We Visit the Moravian Tile Works

My husband and I took advantage of a breezy sunny Sunday afternoon to visit the Moravian Tile Works in Doylestown, PA, on October 23. This combination museum/business/historic site was built in 1907-12 by Henry Chapman Mercer. It shares its site with Fonthill, Mercer’s home of the same vintage.

I won’t go into the history of the site or its founder – they are well-documented elsewhere. The important points are as follows:

1. Mercer created this tileworks as part of his efforts to maintain the craft of handmaking tiles. He designed the tiles and they were made by his workers in this building.

2. The building was purpose-built with a lot of thought about the manufacturing process. Remember that – it’s interesting to think about how such an enterprise would set itself up today.

3. The building, like Fonthill, was designed by Mercer and is built entirely of concrete. Yes, concrete.

4. I participate in the annual tile sale and show held here each May. Here’s a link if you would like to know more about that event. (And you’ll see some pictures of areas of the Tileworks that we didn’t visit today.)

5. I’ve never taken the tour of the Tileworks, though I’ve been through Fonthill several times and visited the Tileworks store, located in one wing of the building.

6. If you are in Doylestown, PA, take a day, yes, a day, and visit Fonthill, the Tileworks, and the Mercer Museum, another of Mercer’s creations. Doylestown is a nice town all on its own and there are plenty of good places to eat lunch.

All right, on to the visit! And I’ll apologize in advance for the photos’ quality – the building was dim and that affected some of the pictures.

The building is U-shaped and has two stories. We entered through the shop and then went on to a large room to see a tape about the Tileworks. The presentation was very informative and clearly explained the various tile-making processes done at the Tileworks. It may interest you to know that no new designs are produced here; everything remains as it was under Mercer’s operation, using the same forms and colors. So the people working here today are replicating the work done from the beginning of this operation, with modifications in equipment, in some cases.

Here’s a view of the room where we saw the tape. As a note, it is very reminiscent of Fonthill in its architecture and the array of objects and tiles all over the room.

meeting-room-mtw-10-16-small

From the introduction we went up to the second floor. This section is pretty much a museum exhibit now – it’s not where tile work is done today.

That brick protrusion to the left of the picture is the upper level of one of the old kilns (remember this when I show you downstairs). The racks are empty, but are meant for drying tiles.

We stepped out onto the balcony that runs all around the upper story. The overhang for the first level was intended to provide an outdoor working space. Today the area is hosting a pumpkin carving festival.

The chimneys vented the kilns and other heat-producers, such as stoves for warmth. They are my favorite feature of this building.

We went back inside and down to the ground floor. This area is where tiles are made. We talked to a craftsman about his work and watched him take clay, press it into the plaster mold, and set it aside to dry for a few minutes; he then pried it out and set it on a drying rack. This is the first stage of tile making; later they will be fired, glazed, and fired again before going on sale, or to an installation project. People still find these tiles desirable; they are attractive and very durable.

We took a quick trip to the cellar, which is where they store the bagged clay, ready for use. There is a dumb-waiter to lift it upstairs, which is good, because clay is heavy. Yes, it is.

mtw-clay-in-cellar-10-16-small

We then made our way back toward the store and the exit. But, there was more to see – the kilns.

Now, they are not in use today. The Tileworks uses modern electric and gas kilns, in a part of the building we did not see. These huge kilns, though, are the originals. They were fired by coal. And, they are enormous. They go all the way through the ceiling, up to the roof of the second floor. A person can stand inside, easily. They were loaded through the door and the fuel fed on the side. I can only imagine how incredibly hot this area became during firings. And you can see why it’s good to have a fireproof concrete building around these structures.

We emerged from the building, quite impressed. It is truly amazing that the enterprise is still in business after 100 years (though with a break or two, between Mercer’s death and the county acquiring the place in the 1960’s) and still using many of the same techniques of its originator.

I wasn’t fond of the building as a workspace, though – I found it cramped and dark. Well, things were different when it was constructed; the needs and resources were handled in the context of the times. It’s very picturesque, though, and I certainly came away with respect for Mercer’s energy, willingness to experiment, and his desire to maintain and support the craft of traditional tile-making.

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7 thoughts on “We Visit the Moravian Tile Works

  1. Laura (PA Pict)

    Thank you for this informative post. I still have not made it to the Moravian tile works – or much else in Doylestown for that matter. I have only been to take the kids to the park that contains the Kid’s Castle. I keep thinking that Mr Pict and I should go and explore there one weekend when the grandparents are in town to look after the kids as I don’t know that they would engage with the historical buildings (we can do a recce first and decide whether to take them) but we are either always busy doing family stuff at weekends or I forget about Doyelstown as an option. One day.

  2. agnesashe

    Looks like a stunning and interesting place to visit. When ever I see tiles used in the outside environment as part of the architectural detail I always think how underrated ’tile art’ is in Western Culture. Since the move to glass and steel there are even less opportunities for grand displays which, I think, is a pity. Great photos capturing the drama of the place.

  3. Claudia McGill Post author

    You’re welcome. You know, I’ve been to Fonthill lots of times but never went inside here until this weekend. Funny how that works! Glad you liked the tour.

  4. Claudia McGill Post author

    Thank you. I agree about tile, it’s seen here as an accent on older buildings and often inside in lobbies and so on. But new ones, they don’t think of it, and I think it’s too bad – wears well, and gives an organic balance to the coldness of most industrial materials. People use it in bathrooms and kitchens, wish there was more imagination about using it. But I also think people here worry about the climate effects of cold and ice, and also that in interiors, it is cold and hard on the feet. Still…I participate in the Tile Fest each year, and part of their mission is to promote the use of tile in today’s life. So… who knows!

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