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What Was the Little Stone House in the Fonthill Woods?

The History Guy describes the glory days and eventual decline of the now-abandoned and vandalized cottage.

There is an abandoned stone house in the Fonthill woods which, sadly, has been gutted and spray-painted by vandals. What was this house and did it have any connection with Henry Mercer? - S.L., Buckingham

 

In 1907, Henry Mercer paid $12,200 for nine tracts of land, totaling about 70 acres, bounded by Court, East and North streets and Swamp Road, according to "Henry Chapman Mercer: An Annotated Chronology," published by the Bucks County Historical Society in 1989.

The Thierolf farm consisted of 30 acres in the center of the property. When he built Fonthill from 1908 to 1912, Mercer encased the farmhouse in concrete and joined it to the "castle" section of his home. The wooden barn was razed and replaced by a concrete garage erected on its foundations.

The 19-acre Bestler tract, at East and North streets, included a two-story stone house and a barn from when the property was a working farm.

In 1916, Mercer made repairs and changes to the house, which he dated between 1765 and 1775. He put on a concrete roof and added a window in one of the end gables. The barn was torn down.

While the Fonthill mansion overlooked broad expanses of lawn, the stone house stood amid trees that had taken root on former farmland. It became known as "the little house in the woods" or " the little stone house."

Mercer designated the Fonthill grounds as a bird sanctuary. He allowed the Doylestown Nature Club, founded in 1907, to use the house for meetings and to display natural artifacts.

A tile mosaic of the club's emblem, a bird and the Latin phrase "silva vocat" ("the forest calls"), is embedded in the top center of the front wall of the house. Across the front eave, tile letters spell out a saying coined by Mercer: "Who learns will love and not destroy, the creature's life, the flower's joy" [punctuation added].

The Doylestown Daily Intelligencer reported on June 16, 1925: "Steps were taken at the all-day meeting of the Doylestown Nature Club at the little stone house at Font Hill [sic] yesterday to place furniture in it that will correspond to the period in which the house was built."

Working with the club, Mercer in 1928 established an arboretum "to be solely devoted to the study and history of trees of America, particularly of the eastern seaboard of the United States and especially to those which thrive and grow well in this region."

Mercer sketched the original map of the arboretum and laid out locations for 91 trees before his death in 1930. He even designed special tile markers with the common and botanical name of each tree, to be attached around the trunk with chicken wire that could be loosened as the tree grew.

Mercer's will stated: "The arboretum shall be under the management, care and direction of the Doylestown Nature Club, as long as the club shall exist."

The club continued to plant trees, each of which was recorded by type of tree, date of planting, location in the arboretum and donor.

"Doylestown Nature Club celebrated its Fall Arboretum Day in a fitting manner by planting trees in the arboretum at 'Fonthill,' the Intelligencer reported on Oct. 11, 1933. The trees included an English creeping yew, an English walnut tree and two oaks.

Over the decades, at least 200 specimen trees were planted. The arboretum has more than 80 species of trees, plants and wildflowers, including hickory, chestnut, maple, oak, dogwood, black locust, pine, trillium, dog tooth violet, mertensia and merrybell.

Special events sometimes were held at the stone house.

"Indian legends and the beautiful Indian interpretation of all phases of nature were the subjects of the 'Indian Council with Nature' meeting of the Nature Club held near the Little Stone House at Fonthill at 7:30 last night," the Intelligencer reported on July 11, 1939. "A large group of the members gathered in the woods around a camp fire built by the Boy Scouts."

At some point, the little house in the woods was vacated. In 1963, Bucks County made an agreement with the Fonthill trustees to lease the grounds for a nominal $1 a year and assume responsibility for maintenance and repairs.

The lease provided: "The existing stone cottage in the woodland is to be rehabilitated and to be used as an exhibit explaining the arboretum and the ecology of the Doylestown and the Southeastern Pennsylvania area."

However, that never happened. Vandals eventually wreaked havoc on the abandoned building. By the late 1980s, they had smashed a 5-foot-wide hole in the bottom of the front wall, destroyed all the windows, ripped out floorboards and the staircase to the second floor, and spray-painted names and obscenities on the interior and exterior walls.

In 1990, the county parks department installed a heavy steel grille over the hole in the wall, placed plywood and steel bars in the windows and rear doorway, and sealed the front entrance with a double layer of concrete blocks.

This has kept vandals from getting inside. Even so, the jerks have smashed some of the outer layer of concrete blocks in the doorway, but so far have been stopped by the inner layer. These cretins (to put it mildly) continue to spray-paint the walls with "tags."

Except for the section already damaged, the walls and roof of the house appear solid. Some of the plywood has been knocked out of the window openings (although the bars remain), allowing rain and snow to get inside.

The Bucks County Historical Society, which took over as Fonthill trustees in 1990, owns the grounds and structures, although the county remains responsible for maintenance. The society bears the expense of operating the Fonthill and Mercer museums.

Barring the sudden appearance of a financial angel, it is unlikely the little house in the woods will ever be restored. As long as it is kept sealed from vandals, the building should remain standing for many decades to come.

Heather November 03, 2011 at 11:29 AM
I thought my friend that grew up here said that an older woman lived in there in the 1980's. Several friends in their late 30's and early 40's have told me this.
Jerald Cohen November 03, 2011 at 12:52 PM
Lets get this building restored! Lets add to our rich cultural! The nature club should be resurected to provide educational learning and summer internship opportunities in partnership with schools and other organizations. Lets do it! Anyone interested? Jeraldmcohen@gmail.com
Curtis November 04, 2011 at 10:15 AM
The older woman was probably Henry's house keeper. She had outlived him and had life-rights in the Font Hill house. I know she was still living there in the mid 70s while my teen friends and I hung out in the woods. As far I can remember the front door to the cottage was already sealed then. Who learns will love and not destroy, the creature's life, the flower's joy - how ironic for that to be on such an abandoned house... That same phrase in the same tile appears outside the font door of the nature center at Peace Valley Park.
TfromD November 04, 2011 at 04:04 PM
Thanks for this article--the most info I've ever found on the Little Stone House. Ever since I discovered that house as a kid in the early '80's I've had a fondness for it. Love old architecture, and how it was just isolated in the woods like that. Heather: I can say with certainly that no one lived there in the '80's. Even in the early '80's, it looked pretty much as it does now. Long neglected & vandalized. Much of the inside graffiti is from the early-mid '80's. And I would be all in on volunteering on a restoration project!
Sarah Larson (Editor) November 04, 2011 at 06:43 PM
I'm so glad you all enjoyed this story. When I photographed the house this summer for our "Where's This?" photo challenge, I knew we had to tell the story of the little house in the woods. We're looking into your questions about whether a woman lived there at some point, and will update hopefully early next week.
Karen November 24, 2011 at 07:09 PM
Maybe a group of scouts could take this on for their Eagle Scout projects.
Edward Levenson December 05, 2011 at 08:21 PM
Laura Swain, Henry Mercer's housekeeper, lived in the Fonthill mansion after Mercer's death in 1930 until September 1974. She died in March 1975 at age 86. Fonthill administrator Edward Reidell said that, to the best of his knowledge, no one lived in the Little Stone House, which lacks water, sewer and electricity.
Alexis Leigh Ross April 19, 2014 at 11:32 AM
Thank you for posting this. I agree that this property should be restored and used as a community facility. Its such a shame to allow it to deteriorate further when it is linked with the rich history of this beautiful estate and town.

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