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Bucks County drew .geniuses to its hills


Of the many brilliant minds who settled in Bucks County, Pa., playwright George S. Kaufman was the one who came under a cloud. The lanky, bespectacled co-author of "You Can't Take It With You" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner" was making headlines in 1936, but not because of his work.

Actress Mary Astor had documented her affair with Kaufman (among others) in her diary, and the lurid excerpts that wound up in the newspaper during her acrimonious divorce rivaled anything on stage or screen. To escape the embarrassment, Kaufman's wife, Beatrice, bought a fieldstone farmhouse near Doylestown, Pa., where the couple and their daughter could hide until the scandal blew over. It was close enough to George's Broadway contacts, yet far enough from nosy gossips.

Kaufman named his new retreat Cherchez La Farm, a French pun that could mean either "Dear Home: The Farm" or "I Can't Find the Farm." That same year, his fellow Algonquin Round Table member Dorothy Parker bought a dilapidated farm a few miles north in Pipersville.

Soon, Kaufman's collaborator Moss Hart also bought a place in Bucks County. Then in 1940, Oscar Hammerstein II and his wife got caught in a vicious downpour while house-hunting near Doylestown. After the storm subsided, the Hammersteins saw a rainbow above a house that happened to be for sale. Taking this as a good omen, they bought the hilltop farm, and a year later, Hammerstein's nine-year, no-hit drought ended when he won an Oscar for his lyrics to the song "The Last Time I Saw Paris."

While the Hammerstein story may be apocryphal, a drive through Bucks County is proof enough that it's a place that could well be at the end of a rainbow.

Rambling old homes -- including the one that once belonged to the Kaufmans -- have been turned into beautiful bed and breakfasts. Antiques shops with eclectic goods spilling onto sidewalks and front porches abound. Cozy restaurants overlook the shimmering Delaware River, which forms the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border. Running parallel to the river on the Pennsylvania side is the Delaware Canal, built in the 1800s as a cheap way to get coal from the northeastern part of the state to Philadelphia. Cyclists and hikers take in the waterfront view from the towpath that unwinds between the waterways.

Pleasant Doylestown

The most famous attraction hereabouts is the town of New Hope, an artist colony on the river. I bypassed it in favor of the less famous (and less crowded) Doylestown, the county seat. It's a pleasant little city of tree-lined streets, quaint shops, restaurants and a manageable museum with informative thumbnail sketch exhibits about the artistic luminaries who lived in the county.

Doylestown also is home to two other museums, both flamboyant castles designed and constructed by yet another Bucks County genius, Henry Chapman Mercer.

Besides wanting to avoid New Hope's tourists, I chose Doylestown because I wanted to see those castles and because I wanted to stay at the Kaufman home, a B&B; now called Barley Sheaf Farm. It was a good combination; Mercer's overwhelming museums are better appreciated over two days, and Barley Sheaf is the ideal spot to spend the night in between.

Located at the end of a long avenue of sycamore trees, Barley Sheaf has been a B&B; for more than two decades. Guests can stay in the main house, a renovated silvery-gray barn or a snug cottage.

On the way to my lodgings in the original house, owner Peter Suess, who has operated the B&B; since 1996, stopped on the second floor to show me George Kaufman's bedroom with a narrow balcony overlooking the pool. Like the rest of the place, the decor in the room is a great example of working with a rustic old farmhouse instead of trying to re-create Tara fabulous mansion. The result is the sort of B&B; where, as one employee says, guests often spend the weekend without leaving the property.

I could have been one of them, I thought, as I stretched out on a sleigh bed in my room with a cup of hot tea and an entertaining biography of Kaufman that Suess had lent me. The only sounds coming through the open windows were the honking of the Canada geese that strut around the grounds and the crunching of tires along the gravel drive.

Eccentric's castles

The mood at Henry Chapman Mercer's home, Fonthill, is decidedly different. While Barley Sheaf encourages you to slow down, the gray cement castle's honeycomb of dark, narrow halls that snake in and out of 44 rooms urge you to push forward.

The many things that piqued Mercer's intellectual curiosity are reflected throughout. He dabbled in architecture, so he designed the castle himself with clay models and rough sketches. To build it, this believer in the beauty of manmade things hired a crew of locals who used traditional tools and a horse named Lucy (who's commemorated in a weathervane atop one of the towers). The paw prints of Mercer's dog Rollo embedded in the stairway also testify to his love of animals.

Mercer was able to pay for his fantasies thanks to a large sum of money he inherited from an aunt. But he made money, too, through yet another artistic fascination: ceramics. To this end, he used his home as a large showroom for the three-dimensional tiles that were made at the pottery factory he built a few yards away. The Moravian Pottery and Tile Works is still going strong today, administered by the county department of parks and recreation.

Those tiles sum up Mercer better than anything else. Mounted on the library mantel in Fonthill are a cluster of ceramic letters that spell "PLUS ULTRA" -- Latin for "more beyond."

"This guy really walked the walk of plus ultra," says tour guide Rob Smith. "He pushed the limits. . . . This house is really kind of a marvel."

Like so many geniuses, the master of Fonthill was eccentric. To remind himself of his mortality, Mercer placed a skull on a mantel exactly in the spot he'd see when he got out of bed in the morning. He included an unimpressive little vase he made among the numerous clay artifacts from all ages that ring the study, because he felt he deserved to be included in the ranks of great potters. He pedaled around town on his bike in search of salvage, like the doors placed behind a bed in a guestroom. Perhaps the wildest thing Mercer did was to build a bonfire on his roof as a way of proving that his building methods were fireproof (they were).

Those same methods were put to use again when he built a second castle to house his 50,000-piece collection of tools and American folk art. That building is now the Mercer Museum. Using cement once again, he created a five-story atrium. Some 55 galleries and alcoves spin off the winding path along the atrium's balcony.

"It looks wild, but it works," says a man who was part of a crew doing maintenance on the facade. Since the building was completed in 1916, it's held up quite well, he explains, with the occasional repairs for leaks and general wear and tear.

Inside, the Mercer Museum looks pretty much as it did when it opened. While the exhibits have been thinned out over time, every corner of the building feels as though it's bursting at the seams. Dusty items are tucked in every conceivable space. A 30-foot Boston whaler hangs from a balcony railing, along with numerous other vessels, scores of baskets and a sleigh. A blue Conestoga wagon looks like it's about to pitch forward into the gallery.

Preparing signage for a museum like the Mercer seems to be an almost endless task. And the information available throughout is uneven. The only written information about the gallows that visitors walk under (for an eerie corpse's-eye view) is where it is on the floor plan, a strange contrast to the lengthy explanation of how turpentine is made that's posted next to a log.

Images preserved

Lack of information is no problem at the James A. Michener Art Museum across the street. The small gallery (named after another famous local) is well documented and has a little something for everyone, from the dreamy paintings of Pennsylvania impressionists to an interactive display about the denizens of the genius belt.

If you're worn out from walking, settle down in the small theater and watch clips from movies that either were written by or featured locals. The hour slips by fast when you're watching Jimmy Cagney fence with Humphrey Bogart in "Angels With Dirty Faces" (written by Ottsville resident John Wexley), Deborah Kerr dance with Yul Brynner in Hammerstein's "The King and I" and Groucho Marx tease the long-suffering Margaret Dumont in "Horse Feathers" (by S.J. Perelman, who bought a farm near Erwinna with his brother-in-law, novelist Nathanael West).

Two days, in fact, slip by quickly in the genius belt. Take it from a local like Kaufman: "When I depart for the farm," he wrote in the New Yorker, "I am in a gay and emancipated mood, eager for a holiday and the wide countryside."


Getting there: Take Interstate 95 north through Delaware toward Philadelphia. In Chester, Pa., take I-476 west toward Bryn Mawr. Pick up I-276 (an extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike) east toward New Jersey. Exit onto Route 611 north and follow about 7 miles into Doylestown. Allow about three hours for the drive.


Mercer Museum, 84 S. Pine St., Doylestown PA 18901

* Phone: 215-345-0210

* Online:

* Hours: Open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (until 9 p.m. Tuesdays) and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

* Admission: $2.50 to $6 depending on age

* The towering castle features displays of folk art, furnishings and tools before the days of mechanization.

Fonthill, East Court Street and Route 313, Doylestown

* Phone: 215-348-9461

* Online:

* Hours: Guided tours only, which last about an hour, are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.; call for reservations

* Admission: $2.50 to $7

* Formerly Henry Mercer's home, the interior of the castle is covered with Mercer's own handmade tiles.

Michener Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown

* Phone: 215-340-9800

* Online: www.

* Hours: Open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (Wednesdays until 9 p.m.) and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

* Admission: $2.50 to $6

* The museum opened in 1988 as a means to preserve the artistic legacy Bucks County inherited from its talented residents.


Barley Sheaf Farm, P.O. Box 10 Holicong, PA 18928

* Phone: 215-794-5104

* Online:

* Rates: From $120 to $300

* Former home of playwright George S. Kaufman, this 15-room Victorian B&B; is comfortable and inviting.


Golden Pheasant Inn, Route 32 Erwinna, PA 18920

* Phone: 610-294-9595

* Online:

* Hours: Dinner is served Wednesday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. and Sundays from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

* Excellent authentic French fare in a pretty riverside setting; dinner entrees start at $18.

For something more casual and cheaper, check out the number of small places in Peddler's Village, a nicely done shopping center east of Doylestown in Lahaska. For information on what's there, call 215-794-4000 or go to

For more information about attractions, lodging and dining in Doylestown and Bucks County, contact the Bucks County Conference and Visitors Bureau, 215-345-4552;

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