The Fireplace: From Necessity to Nostalgia?

via CWB Architects

As Christmas quickly approaches, I daydream of spending a blustery winter evening roasting marshmallows in a toasty fireplace.  Despite living in a Middle Eastern desert with balmy winter weather and turquoise water, the nostalgia for a garland-trimmed fireplace at Christmastime tugs at my heart strings.   I’m not alone.  A fireplace is often a “must” for homebuyers.  Even Cicero quoted sometime in the first century BC, “There is no place more delightful than one’s own fireplace”.

While the fireplace has primarily become an aesthetic fixture from which Christmas stockings are hung and family photos showcased, this wasn’t always the case.   The popularity of centrally heated ranch-style houses surged in the 1940s and 50s, displacing the fireplace as a supplementary ornament instead of a primary source of heat.

Let’s be thankful we didn’t live a thousand years ago.  From antiquity to the 1200s, open indoor fire pits were positioned in the middle of the room and vented by a hole in the roof.  Think of camping…but inside.  A technological leap in the 13th century shifted the fireplace from the center of the house to an exterior wall. An outdoor chimney clumsily vented smoke away from the building, enabling second stories to be built where previously not possible.

In 1796, a physicist named Count Rumsford designed a new fireplace where a tall, shallow firebox reflected more heat and streamlined exhaust.  This combination allowed the chimney to be incorporated into the wall of the home rather than attached to the exterior.  Rumford’s design has lasted, with modifications, ever since.   Mantels, which projected to catch escaping smoke, evolved from large looming hoods in medieval times to the decorative framework and shelf we know today.

Yet, for a so-called “accessory”, the fireplace still garners a lot of design attention.  Traditionally centered on a wall or in a corner, seating is typically arranged oriented with a command central focus towards the fireplace, even though it may be rarely (or ever) used.  Many fireboxes in old homes have been bricked up to prevent heat loss but are architecturally and functionally still the focus of the room. Contemporary settings tend to integrate the fireplace more asymmetrically in the space, but it still remains the visual highlight.

Worth noting, in recent years more homeowners are opting to heat their homes fully or partially with specialized wood or pellet stoves  in an effort to combat rising oil and gas prices….perhaps an interesting turnabout?

Nonetheless, man’s innate allure to fire and his ability to build has culminated in the creation of some delightful fireplaces.  For the simplicity of making us feel warm, both physically and emotionally, fireplaces make our houses homes. Here are a few favorites:

via Tracery Interiors

via lovely jolie

via Metalfire

via Lew French

via Debey Zito Design

via Bo Bendana

via Lewin Wertheimer Architect

via Schwartz and Architecture

Riad Farnatchi via Kiwi Collection

via Fine Woodworking

via CWB Architects

Source links:

Bo Bendana

CWB Architects

Debey Zito Design

Fine Woodworking

Kiwi Collection

Lew French

Lewin Wertheimer Architect

lovely jolie


Schwarts and Architecture

Tracery Interiors


Thank you to Fireplaces Magazine for some historical information on fireplaces.