The Doylestown House

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

"Charles Sheeler in Doylestown: American Modernism and the Pennsylvania Tradition"

by Karen Lucic

 



 

HENRY CHAPMAN MERCER

An understanding of the artist's relationship with Henry Mercer illuminates the history of Sheeler's engagement with the vernacular traditions of the Doylestown region. [15] A wealthy native of Bucks County (the first member of his family arrived in 1684) who was active in the local Arts and Crafts movement, Mercer was born in Doylestown -- the county seat of the region -- in 1856. He studied law at the University of Pennsylvania, but archeology became his consuming passion in the 1880s. His interests shifted again in the 1890s from prehistoric artifacts to American material culture of the colonial period and the early Republic. At the turn of the century, he founded a small-scale ceramic factory, called the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, inspired by the all-but-extinct Pennsylvania German pottery traditions of the region.[16]

Mercer revived the preindustrial handicrafts of the region because he wanted to highlight and preserve objects showing the creativity of the ordinary, anonymous early settlers of Bucks County. He began collecting their artifacts because he felt the lives of such people embodied the real significance of the American past. Since these early craftspeople rarely left written records of their activities, Mercer viewed their tools, houses, and other artifacts as the best evidence of their part in creating the American nation. For Mercer, these anonymous individuals were as important as the military and political figures glorified in history books.[17] To fulfill his goal of reconstructing everyday life in preindustrial America, Mercer eventually amassed more than 30,000 vernacular artifacts, which he gave to the Bucks County Historical Society in 1916. He wanted his collection permanently on view in order to present the contemporary public with an expanded history of America.[18]

The construction of old houses especially interested Mercer, and he grew increasingly alarmed at the rapid disappearance of Doylestown's historic architecture due to the impact of modernization.[19] As early as 1907, Mercer began placing concrete markers in front of significant houses in the vicinity. These tablets recorded the original builder and the date of construction. He hoped that these markers would alert the public to the history of the structures and thereby help ensure their preservation. In fact, in 1908 Mercer placed a tablet next to the northwest portal of the house that later captured Sheeler's attention (cat. 6).[20] This would have immediately alerted the artist to the building's historic status.

The small farmhouse most likely interested Mercer because it stood (and still stands) not far from the Moravian Pottery, on the boundaries of his Fonthill estate.[21] In addition, it represents a type of dwelling once ubiquitous in pre-Revolutionary Bucks County.[22] The southeast and northwest facades mirror one another with a central door and an asymmetrically placed window on each side. Both the first and second floors (approximately eighteen by twenty-one feet) allowed division into two small rooms by a central partition. [23]

Most antiquarians of the period would have been more interested in the builder of the house, Jonathan Worthington, than in the structure itself. But Mercer cared less for its genealogical associations than its architectural features.[24] He valued the house because it was one of the oldest in the region, and it had survived with much of its original features intact, including hardware, interior staircases, and triangular doorway hoods.[25] But in 1908 the house's roof needed repair, an adjacent log dwelling stood in ruins, and the building belonged to a local family uninterested in its history. In fact, the owner was planning to tear it down until Mercer interceded by paying to repair the roof; from that time until his death in 1930, Mercer remained vitally concerned with the house's welfare.[26]

Sheeler and Mercer remained friendly throughout the artist's years in Doylestown, and the older man's collection of vernacular artifacts must have fascinated Sheeler. During this period Sheeler began collecting examples of early Pennsylvanian objects himself (see cat. 43). But of all the interests the two men had in common, "the little house," as they affectionately referred to it, remained their most intimate mutual concern. The house changed owners numerous times during Sheeler's tenancy, [27] which made Mercer extremely nervous about its future. He always feared that a new owner would alter the structure in some way inappropriate to its historic status. But while Sheeler lived there, the house remained quite rustic, apparently without electricity or central heating. Sheeler and Schamberg did whitewash parts of the interior and strip away many recently added appurtenances when they first moved in. One of their associates, Fanette Meyers, indicated that their goal was to create a purified aesthetic space that resembled the modernist exhibition galleries of Stieglitz's "291" in New York.[28] But they apparently did nothing to endanger the house's preservation, and because they left the original hardware and other features intact, Mercer valued their tenancy.

In 1922, Mercer displayed his trust for Sheeler's care of the house by urging the artist to buy it in order to protect it from "some vandal or moneygrubber."[29] Sheeler wrote back to Mercer, assuring him that he "adored" the place and even planned to restore the log kitchen, but he did not feel sufficiently established to buy it at that time.[30] Other letters confirm that Sheeler continued to maintain a vigilant watch over the house. In 1924, Mercer -- justifiably concerned about "latch thieves" -- proposed removing an unusual piece of hardware from the exterior door (cat. 7). He promised Sheeler that he would replace it with an exact replica made by a local craftsman,[31] but the artist politely refused the request because he was unwilling to accept a modern substitute for an authentic piece of Americana. Surprisingly -- given how vigorously he tried to distance himself from antiquarian concerns -- Sheeler was in this instance more conscientious than Mercer about preserving a historic object in its original context.

Despite their mutual love for the little house, Sheeler and Mercer were from different generations and backgrounds, and in certain respects -- as revealed in the lock incident -- their attitudes toward historic American artifacts also differed. Sheeler maintained the house as a personal sanctuary and a repository of vernacular forms to inspire his modernist project. Mercer subscribed to an Arts and Crafts ideal of preserving the past for the entire community -- as a way of teaching others how to establish a proper relationship with artifactual traditions. Yet both men wanted to preserve the house to counteract modernizing forces in the present.[32]

 

THE MEANING OF THE DOYLESTOWN HOUSE

Although the artist exhibited a highly proprietary attitude toward the Worthington house, he was eager to share it with those he loved. From the beginning, he jointly inhabited it with Schamberg, and in his correspondence with other artists and collectors; he often urged them to visit. These letters underscore its importance as a refuge for the artist from a hectic urban existence. Although the artists and writers of Sheeler's generation seemed to celebrate modernization in depictions of skyscrapers and factories, they often felt alienated from their nation's cityscapes and were in fact troubled by industrial transformation and social disruption. The unfettered commercialism of urban America, especially in New York City, provoked many bitter complaints from this group.[33]

Sheeler retreated to the Doylestown house whenever he could get away from his professional activities in Philadelphia, and after 1919, from similar pressures in New York City. He encouraged his friends and patrons Walter and Louise Arensberg to join him and partake of the house's salutary effects: "Have you and Lou anything better to do this weekend than to visit the hermit of Doylestown?"[34] Sheeler was especially anxious to share his rural retreat with Stieglitz during the demise of the "291" gallery in 1917 -- an extremely disheartening time for the older photographer. Sheeler felt that Stieglitz's depressed spirits would greatly benefit from the restorative power of the Worthington house. In his letter of invitation, he personifies the structure for Stieglitz: " . .. the little house will be so happy to receive you . . . whenever you can get away -- and I can add from experience the advantage it has proven to call a halt in the midst of the rush -- go out there, put one's windows up and let the fresh air clear out the atmosphere."[35] More than just a refuge, the house was a place that encouraged elevated contemplation: "You may lie on the grass and gaze at the stars -- or marvel at the universe in a handful of dirt -- the requisites for either are there, so come along."[36] Sheeler's lines evoke both the poetry of Blake ("to see a world in a grain of sand") and Whitman ("I lean and loaf at my ease. . . observing a spear of summer grass"). These ebullient phrases come as a surprise to those familiar with the habitual reticence of Sheeler's discourse. The house inspired a different kind of language, one that spoke of spiritual renewal as well as artistic inspiration.

 

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