Gather ‘Round These Seven Historic Fireplaces
Even with the rise of central heating, fireplaces remain a focal point in American homes today. After all, what is a better feeling than returning home from a chilly winter’s day to warm your frozen fingers near a roaring fire or to share a warm drink with good friends in front of a blaze?
Historically, however, fireplaces were a practical necessity. In early America, a blazing hearth served as the hub of the house, not only providing warmth (and thus a de facto family gathering spot), but also a way to cook and bake. In larger homes, they were often sites of intense physical labor tended by servants or enslaved people.
Below, we take a look at the fireplaces at seven National Trust Historic Sites to understand the role they play as spaces for a wide range of household activity.
Oatlands in Leesburg, Virginia, has a fireplace in the greenhouse that an enslaved family used to keep warm and cook with during the winter. The greenhouse, built in 1810, is believed to be the second-oldest propagation greenhouse in the country. Enslaved people used the space to cultivate a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Oral history suggests that one or two enslaved people may have even slept inside the greenhouse during winter when they were required to stoke the fire around the clock in order to maintain a consistent temperature for the plants.
Over in Middletown, Virginia, Belle Grove Plantation has several fireplaces in the 1797 Manor House, but we wanted to bring your attention to the hearth in the basement kitchen. This is where the meals were prepared for the main house. Open-hearth cooking was a demanding job that required intense physical labor and a finesse—and cooks relied on the feeling of heat to judge whether their fire was hot enough. Judah, along with her two sons, was purchased and enslaved by the Hite family in 1816 where she served as the cook at Belle Grove until her death in 1836. As a cook, Judah worked long, laborious hours on her feet in the hot, smoky kitchen underneath Belle Grove’s main house.
Drayton Hall, an 18th-century plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, has a large fireplace in its Great Hall. The fireplace mantel and overmantel were drawn almost directly from Plate 64 in The Designs of Inigo Jones, an influential book by the English architect William Kent. In the cellar of the main house, there are two fireplaces. The larger fireplace is where enslaved people would prepare the meals for the household. Recent paint analysis tells us that food was also prepared in the smaller fireplace, so historians believe the finding indicates that enslaved people lived in the space, preparing their own meals in the smaller fireplace.
At Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, New York, the Gothic Revival mansion contains over eight fireplaces spanning the 1840s to 1880s. Lyndhurst was originally a summer residence, but when the dining room was added in the 1860s, the large fireplace was mostly decorative as the owner (George Merritt) had large radiators put into the room to heat it and keep the food warm. The fireplace is comprised of contrasting marbles and stone material, including onyx and a travertine mantel shelf and Rouge Royal (a Belgian marble) for the small columns on the sides of the fireplace. The decorative elements continue above the mantel looking like the columns below, but they are actually made of wood. There are several examples of faux painting in the dining room, including around the fireplace. At the time, this was a way to showcase affluence and taste as it was more expensive to bring in an artist who can fauxpaint rather than a craftsman to cut and carve marble.
While not much is known about the staff at Lyndhurst, apart from that there was a mix of men and women and from different ethnicities ranging from German to Irish to eastern European. According to 1870 Census data, Merritt registered eight domestic staff to Lyndhurst, all from Ireland, except Mary Beekman who was born in New York to “foreign birth” parents. The housekeeping staff would have most likely attended to the fireplaces in the house.
Filoli in Woodside, California, has 17 fireplaces and 11 chimneys in its 1917 historic house built for the Bourn family. One of the most spectacular is the Ballroom's marble mantelpiece, which was modeled after the fireplace in the Hercules Salon at Versailles. Almost every room in Filoli's historic house has a fireplace; the smallest fireplace, a finely carved Carra marble piece, can be found in the drawing room. The largest is in the dining room with an extravagant mantel created from an enormous block of rare, dark-green Escalette marble. The Bourns were ahead of their time, installing electricity, an elevator, and a boiler to heat the house. However, only the ground floor was heated by the boiler. The fireplaces on that floor mainly served to provide ambiance, opulence, and ground the rooms architecturally. The upstairs bedrooms had fireplaces as a necessity to provide heat. The Bourns had as many as 35 people on staff, and several servants would have been tasked to tend the various fires.
Brucemore in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was originally built with a whopping 14 fireplaces, with contemporary newspapers flaunting the magnificent property as “the finest residence this side of Chicago.” The second owners of the estate were the Douglas family. Irene Douglas, the Douglas family’s primary patron of the arts, had the financial resources as well as access to purchase art from all over the country, yet her art collection reflects her support of local artists and friends. She often commissioned Grant Wood, perhaps best-known for his “American Gothic” painting. Historians credit Grant Wood for creating several architectural elements, like fireplace screens throughout the community, in addition to the designing and installing Brucemore’s sleeping porch.
Like other large estates, domestic servants were responsible to keeping it running; their work touched every part of the house, including tending the fireplaces. The Douglas family employed as many as ten servants at one time to maintain the house and grounds. Although the Brucemore staff was quite grand for Cedar Rapids, it was small compared to other wealthy families across the country. Workdays were long as hired help would start their day before the family to be prepared to serve family members as soon as they awoke. A servant’s day would continue until well after the family had retired for the night and would, of course, include the tending of the fireplaces.
Finally, we have a very spartan fireplace that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for a suburban family in 1940. In Alexandria, Virginia, you’ll find the Pope-Leighey House where natural light takes center stage. The fireplace is found in the open floor main living area, and it serves as a central meeting point. The patterning of the brick chimney and hearth reinforces the horizontality of the architecture. The clerestory windows between the top of the wall and the ceiling in this room make the ceiling appear to float. According to the original owner, Loren Pope, “you can sit by the fireplace at night and see the stars.”
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