The Moravian Pottery and Tile Works
Traveling to me means discovering the gems of nature and history around the world.
You know, like looking up to the whimsical spires of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or admiring the iron cherub lamps in Paris next to the River Seine. The visions can take my breath away and the stay locked in my memory forever.
This is a story about the Moravian Tile Works near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I realize that a hundred-year-old factory is not one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but the Moravian Tile Works near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the talented man behind it, is an inspiring slice of history that I will remember always.
Sitting out in the middle of an ungroomed meadow in rural Pennsylvania sits a slightly crumbly but curious old structure
with smokestacks that from afar look textured somehow. I squint, trying to make it out. Are those bumps deliberate or is the place just falling down?
Pulling the car into a small parking lot around back, I get out and see that the smokestacks are ringed with colorful tiles. And the entire structure looks to be made of concrete, giving it a grungy and rustic look. But inlaid under the roof eaves are beautiful picture tiles glazed in reds and blues, belying the grunge factor.
A simple walkway through uncut grasses leads me to a dark-stained ancient wooden door whose wrought iron latch has gone flummoxed so a hand-written note is tacked there, instructing, “Push down hard on thumb latch.”
Henry Mercer is the incredible Renaissance man
responsible for this building and the fantastic art created here. He’s dead now, having lived in the late nineteenth and into the twentieth century, but a photo of him shows a smiling man in a three-piece tweed suit, hair parted down the center and hugging a big black dog. There’s something about the tilt of his head and his eyes that tell me an intricate story of obsessive curiosity and a passion for living.
Mercer designed and built this unusual building in 1911, copying the look of a Spanish mission. Its all-cement walls echo the look of adobe but last much longer. The purpose of this building? Tiles. Mercer manufactured tiles here that now grace buildings in 44 of the 50 United States, including Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, Boston’s Gardner Museum, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Pennsylvania State Capital. At the Capital in Harrisburg, 16,000 square feet of handmade tiny 3 inch tiles depict the history of Pennsylvania, including a tile copy of the painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”
What really strikes me as I pass through low ceilinged hallways in the different factory rooms is that these tiles are not like any I’ve ever seen. They’re elaborate and super colorful with dozens of pieces. For instance, this huge round tile is comprised of jigsaw puzzle-like pieces cut from a slab of clay. A video has explained to me how the original picture was transferred to a huge slab, then the separate pieces cut apart and numbered to keep them organized, then fired. Glazes are poured and painted on and the pieces fired again. Then it’s all put back together like you see here and attached to a cement backing before the grout is added to all the spaces.
This picture is of two large molds for “brocade” tiles, or ones that are more like relief sculptures. Clay is mashed down in the mold, pulled out and glazed before firing in a kiln. The variety and beauty of the tiles is so impressive with the European flavor mixed with the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Back in the day, this old building had seven workers. With their specially made apparatus seen here, two men could produce between 1,500 and 5,500 tiles per day.
My walk through the museum then leads to rooms where artisans – live ones – are still making tiles today. Christine, a nice woman who is making letter tiles that will be installed at the local county courthouse, tells me that Henry Mercer was an early environmentalist. She pointed to the ancient doors of the place with their funny latches, and told me Mercer collected and recycled old wood to make them.
Most of the rooms in the factory are plain square boxes for work to be performed there, but one room near the back of the structure is a large space with a soaring ceiling and stone fireplace rimmed with large tiles. Several columns have curving tops covered with colorful tiles and yet more tiles ring the entire room, some in big blocks, making this room a strange mix of rustic lodge and Indian temple. I can feel Mercer’s personality in this room and I like it. I would have liked to know the man.