Add Architectural Character with Interesting Fireplaces
A working fireplace — long sacrificed in favour of the assumed higher efficiency of central heating — is once again considered to be one of the best aesthetic assets a room can have. However efficient the heating system, however beautiful the contents of a room, nothing as comforting as flickering flames and sweet-smelling smouldering wood or coal has yet been invented — although-fired imitations set into a pretty mantel are reasonable runners-up.
Even if a fireplace is not functional, the mantelpiece still provides a natural focal point for a room, and in any case, with some expense and determination, it might well be possible to open up a chimney again or to divert a flue or create a new one. Consider matters carefully before you remove a fireplace or mantelpiece unless it is really hideous. If a building is at all old, the fireplace and its surround may well be original and will almost certainly suit the proportion and ‘feel’ of the room in a way that no replacement could — unless, perhaps, it is a superior model of the same period and style taken out of another building.
If you are trying to make a room much grander than it already is, you could install a grander fireplace. Some times, too, the original will have been removed already, in which case the choice is either to find another of the period or suited to the style of the room, whether an original or a good reproduction, or to introduce some other classic fireplace. Old French marble fireplaces, or copies of them, seem to fit in with almost any style of furnishing, and are often used when upgrading a room. You might prefer an old English pine mantel to a marble one, or vice versa.
It may be difficult or undesirable to remove an existing fireplace that is undistinguished rather than unattractive. In this case it can always be ‘marble-ized’, ‘faux bois’d’ or given some other painted finish — or just painted the same colour as the walls. If the mantel is not bad but the slips (the stone, marble or tiles framing the actual fire-hole) are awful they can (at worst) be replaced — an expensive, messy job. Alternatively, they can be painted; boarded over and then faux-finished; tiled over, if they do not stand too proud on top of the old tiles; or even mirrored on top of the old tiles in a room that could benefit from a bit more sparkle.
If a mantelpiece is unattractive and the room has no special architectural characteristics, a comparatively easy solution is to remove the offending mantel, and either install a basket grate in the hole or plan to burn logs directly on the hearth or on fire dogs. Alternatively, once the old mantelpiece has been removed and the recess tidied up, it can be framed.
One technique worth thinking about is — assuming it is feasible — to take down the walls either side of a chimney breast, leaving a central grate between two rooms. The grate can be either knocked right through, so that one fire is shared by the two ends of the enlarged space, or rebuilt so that there is a separate fire on each side; on the whole, the latter is the most satisfactory solution if you want to minimize excess smoke. The exposed chimney breast will usually form a striking shape in the room. There is no reason why the hearth should not be raised a couple of feet above the floor to give extra warmth, and perhaps extended along a wall to form a long brick base that can hold books and magazines as well as providing more seating.
If there is no fireplace at all in an otherwise ideal country house, do not despair. Wood-burning stoves can be added to outside walls provided flues are carefully engineered and the wall is insulated and fireproofed.