Changing Skyline: Mercer Museum adds space with a well-crafted concrete addition

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The one-story addition to the Mercer Museum will add 13,000 square feet, enabling the display of more holdings. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

Nothing separates architects from the rest of humanity like concrete. Architects will go into raptures over its tough, tactile quality. But among the general public, who tend to associate the material with no-frills highways and bad public housing, concrete buildings evoke a visceral dislike. Maybe attitudes would be different if more people encountered Doylestown's Mercer Museum, a quirky French chateau formed entirely of concrete, window frames and roof included.

Henry Mercer, the anthropologist, tile maker, and amateur architect who designed the improbable Bucks County castle in 1916, chose concrete for the most practical of reasons: He needed a fireproof building to house his astounding collection of wooden tools. But he also was drawn to the material because he loved things that reveal the hand of their maker. Concrete is something you have to mix, pour, and shape, and its nubby surface holds the memories of those labors.

Unfortunately, not many architects dare to build in concrete nowadays. It's difficult to get concrete done right, especially in Pennsylvania, a diehard steel state where metal frames remain the preferred means of construction. Louis Kahn, Philadelphia's concrete mixmaster, had to travel to California to do his greatest work. Those who use concrete today, like Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, designers of Penn's Skirkanich Hall, must endure having their buildings compared to parking garages.

I admit to having a weak spot for concrete - its color, its naturalness, its revealing texture - so it was a pleasant surprise to see Philadelphia's Voith & Mactavish take on concrete in their new entrance to the Mercer. Suppressing their usual neo-traditional impulses (another nice surprise), they have produced a sophisticated, modern addition that nods affectionately to Mercer's building, while standing smartly on its own as architecture.

The one-story addition, which opened last week, was commissioned to give the Mercer the space it lacked for basic museum amenities, including a special exhibition gallery, classroom, and coat check. Despite the castle's seven rambling stories of turrets, dormers, and niches, it always has been incredibly cramped because Mercer filled the place literally to the rafters.

His collection, which includes items ranging from spinning wheels to whaling boats, provides a unique window into the material culture of preindustrial America. But while the museum is 17,000 square feet, the collection's lessons are not easily grasped in the chaotic galleries. At 13,000 square feet, the new pavilion will significantly increase the Mercer's ability to show off its holdings.

Many architects might have gone the glass-box route in designing the addition, both as a way of deferring to, and resisting, the overpowering weight of the mother ship, a National Historic Landmark. Using concrete was more fraught, but Voith & Mactavish pull it off.

Their addition works because it is so different stylistically from Mercer's eccentric confection. Working from a master plan by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the architects sited their structure so it appears almost as a pedestal for the flamboyant castle.

A flat-roofed modern pavilion, its disciplined lines recall the serene glamour of the Mad Men era, when a simple, well-crafted, concrete museum was still considered something swank.

Maybe the details here aren't quite as exquisite as they were back then, but the outlines of the $12.5 million design are still quite good. Voith & Mactavish infuse life into the concrete walls by varying their texture. The smooth center portions are framed by rougher edges that look like stacked planks. It's subtle and elegant.

The architects used pretty much the same building techniques as Mercer did almost a century ago. They poured the concrete slurry into molds constructed of wooden boards. The striations of the wood grain echo those on the Mercer.

As visitors approach from the reconfigured parking lot, they get a panoramic view of the impressive peaks and valleys of the Mercer's rooftop. Then the addition gets down to business. An asymmetrical entrance plaza gently guides museumgoers through a large concrete portal in an airy, sun-drenched lobby.

Mercer's castle door was originally located on the building's other side, on Pine Street. Visitors landed right in the main gallery, a six-story-high atrium. It was, as director Douglas C. Dolan likes to say, "an oh-my-god moment," because the room is so stuffed with stuff. As with the Barnes Foundation, another highly personal museum collection, there was no transition from the quotidian world to the more contemplative space inside. Visitors also moved from bright sunlight to museum murk in an instant.

The new lobby, which replaces a smaller entry added in the '70s, now acts as a staging area where visitors ready themselves for the trip to the cavelike grand court. The room is bounded by two glass walls that are placed so they frame close-up views of the Mercer's bric-a-brac facade.

From here, visitors can either start their journey at the special exhibition gallery, which will be used to highlight and explain themes embedded in Mercer's collection, or plunge into the main show through a refurbished vestibule featuring a floor of tomato-hued tiles from Mercer's Moravian Pottery & Tile Works, still functioning a mile away.

Mercer, an important figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, committed his life to documenting and preserving traditional craft skills. By embracing a material he loved, Voith & Mactavish carry on that worthy mission.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.