Understanding House Design by Looking at the Fireplace

The fireplace is a unique part of the house. It is a massive vertical element, supports roofs and floors, rest on the largest foundation, and penetrates the roof. Historically it was likely the most expensive part of the house construction. Even the most modest one room house had a fireplace which provided two life sustaining functions: heating and cooking. As is often remarked, the hearth is the center of the house.  The fireplace, more so than other building features, organizes furniture placement and room use. One knows instinctively when furniture is placed without regard to the fireplace. Some of this is the way that the fireplace is used and viewed, but also the way that the mantle is touched, used as a prop for intimate conversation, or momentous family announcements. It is one of the most intimate parts of the building. People get close to it, pose by it, touch it, and rest their elbow on the mantle. The touching of the mantle is profoundly different than the touching of a door, or stair handrail. An elbow perched on a fireplace mantle is a unique contact of occupant with building.

The fireplace has evolved from the functional duties of heating and cooking, but it has retained the symbolic status as the center of the house. It is the location of the display of the most important objects of the household: ancestral paintings, important art, ash urns, and award statues. It can also be the location of important household discussions and celebrations: births, deaths, marriages, and career strategies. The design of the fireplace expresses feelings, values, ideas and emotions, in the same way that the house design expresses these things. The fireplace is a concentrated expression; it has greater intensity and more intimacy than the whole house.

Architects design the fireplace as a concentrated symbolic feature integral to the whole house design. Thomas Jefferson gave great thought and attention to the design of the fireplace mantles so they would reflect and extend the architectural concepts he developed at Monticello. Charles and Sumner Greene designed the Gamble House fireplace as an integral extension of the interior woodwork in the same way they extend the exterior finishes of the house into the landscape. Richard Meier fireplaces stand alone in the interior, just as his houses are isolated in the landscape. These fireplaces are specific to each house. A mantle from Monticello placed in the Gamble House would be both humorous, and tragic.

By examining the fireplace design, subtleties of the architect’s intentions can be discovered. The architect’s artistic aspirations more fully understood, and insights can be gained into the historical relevance of the house.

THOMAS JEFFERSON at MONTICELLO

Thomas Jefferson took architecture very seriously, but he must have thought that building was a lot of fun. He studied architecture continuously throughout his life. As his understanding of architecture changed, he tore down parts of Monticello and rebuilt them. These changes were significant in scope, but they were absolutely only architectural. He had no real need to change the house from any functional requirement. He only wanted to change the architectural composition of columns, porticos, windows and trim. It was simply a joy for him to build.

The house reflects his curiosity of the natural world, and his interest in the arts and sciences of man. On the front porch roof he mounted a weathervane, the rod of which passes down through the porch attic. Attached to the bottom of the rod is a directional arrow, just below the porch ceiling. On the ceiling he mounted a compass rose so that he could see the direction of the wind from inside the porch. He designed a pair of French doors from the Hall into the Dining Room, and attached a sprocket gear above each door. By placing a chain (like a bicycle chain) in a figure 8 shape, when one of the doors was opened, the opposite door also opened. The pair of doors act in unison, but only one has to be moved for both to work. Opening and closing the doors requires only one hand. Clever, but it is the magic, whimsy and humor in it that tells you a lot about Jefferson.

The fireplace in the Dining Room has a surround of stone and a mantle of wood trim that was inspired by the English architect Inigo Jones. The composition is inlayed with Wedgewood relief medallions, and is not remarkable except that on each side of the fireplace is a secret cabinet door. When closed the doors are crafted to look like the fixed woodwork of the mantle. They conceal two dumbwaiters that connect to the basement wine cellar. Imagine Jefferson being able to magically and effortlessly produce an additional bottle of wine for his guests. So like the house, this fireplace expresses Jefferson’s joy of invention, and the pleasure of life.

FRANK FURNESS Philadelphia 1880s

Frank Furness produced architecture that has been described as idiosyncratic, boisterous, and even violent. But if nothing else it is bold. Furness experienced the bloody destruction of the Civil War as a cavalry commander. When he returned to practice architecture in Philadelphia, he created collisions of architectural forms that have extreme exaggerations with intense crushing piston-like movements.

The general waiting room at this Baltimore and Ohio Train Station in Philadelphia (demolished) is a massive vertical mass of masonry so ponderous that the immense stone arch appears unable to support the brick pile above. The rough stone arch presses down on two fireplaces that in turn support the arch with a strained center stem.

The resultant composition (and who is to say which came first: the two fireplaces or the massive stone arch) is a powerful statement of architectural forms slammed together and forced into one uncomfortable whole.

In the National Bank of the Republic 1884, Furness shoehorned an entire (Swiss, German, French) chateau in between two staid classical established houses of finance. He smashed, slashed and truncated this chateau, and at the same time pumped up this little building so that it looks like it is pressing hard sideways against its two competitive neighbors. Maybe they are squeezing the underdog out of business. Maybe there is a story here of an immigrant upstart banker trying to take on the Philadelphia establishment. Does anybody have this much fun with architecture anymore?

There is no photograph of the fireplace in the Bank, it was demolished in 1953. The image of the Train Station fireplace though could substitute. Together they reveal Frank Furness as a muscular manipulator of architectural form, disinterested in convention, hell bent on personal idiosyncratic expression. Louis Sullivan carried these traits from Furness’s office to Chicago.

Furness was gentler in his residential work, almost sweet. In his First Unitarian Parish House he placed a large open arch directly above the fireplace. As wide as the firebox and several times as tall, this arch penetrated the entire masonry chimney to the outside. A single pane of glass maximizes the view to the outdoors and the drama of the architectural form. This may not have been the first time that a window had been designed above a fireplace (Mark Twain at his Connecticut house had requested one so that he could look at the snow fall while he watched the fire), but the overall form is surprisingly modern. It is even easy to miss here that Furness used exposed brick as the interior finish, and that there is no reference at all to a traditional wood mantle. We don’t get to see this innovative creation of new form again until Rudolph Schindler’s fireplaces in the 1920s.

McKIM, MEAD AND WHITE New York, 1890

The fireplace at the Court of Appeals Room in Albany is by MMW during their aesthetic movement/H. H. Richardson influenced period. The fireplace is extensively carved with floral forms. There is a use of repetitive carvings that exudes wealth and power. The carved potted vegetal pieces above the mantle are framed and controlled by a heavily carved boarder. All of the vegetal carving is forced into symmetry and repetition. Even the inglenook benches are reduced to submission – no one would ever sit on one of them. This fireplace is about control and power. We may assume that the portraits that are integrated and secured to the wall paneling are Justices of the Courts. Nothing gets changed on this wall, the pots on the mantle are perpetually symmetrical, and the rulings of the Justices are as carved in stone as the potted plants.

The fireplace at the lounge of the Manhattan Club is stylistically removed from the Courts fireplace, but the statement of power and control is similar. This fireplace is about business and social wealth and not so much about the law. The illusion of aristocracy is the goal of this fireplace: if you are in this room, you are above everyone that is not. The Italian Renaissance style here is cleaned and regulated by the English Georgian, and codified by McKim, Mead and White into symbols of American commerce and established family blood lines.

McKim, Mead and White expertly wove the residential application of the “mantle of power” into the shingle style, and then more forcefully into the colonial revival style. These houses with symmetrical Tuscan columns, porticos, and center halls with fireplaces axially centered on doorways and hallways became the satellite compounds of the Manhattan Club and the halls of justice.

These symbolic architectural forms are still in use today in gated communities the Neo Georgian golf course club house is surrounded by colonial revival style pretend mansions.

GREENE and GREENE Gamble House, Pasadena, California 1908

In the 1908 Gamble House, the Greene brothers created a fireplace that is totally integrated with the house and all of their furnishings. The fireplace is set in a large alcove beside the Living Room. The high, shallow mantle, a simple polished redwood shelf, extends beyond the fireplace, turns both corners in the alcove, and becomes the top of the inglenook bench backs. These are benches to be used; they are of the house, and also of the furniture. The entire house is to be caressed like a piece of furniture. This ambiguous flow from furniture to mantle, to house, to garden makes an encompassing environment of extraordinary harmony.

IRVING GILL Dodge House, Los Angeles, California 1916

Irving Gill is a most interesting architect because he stood on the threshold of the Modern period. His 1916 Dodge House in Los Angeles (demolished 1970) is a smooth surfaced reflection of the interior spaces. In this way the house is not abstract like Loos or Le Corbusier.  The exterior architectural forms are the envelope of the interior rooms. The windows of the exterior are plainly and frankly the windows found in the interior. There is no compositional contrivance of a ribbon window, or a parapet wall extended to become an ambiguous form. Yet he uses full round arches for some openings. His buildings have always had the tag of “a modern response to the regional sensibilities to indigenous pueblo buildings”. It is interesting to look at his fireplaces to see what they might tell us about his thinking.

The fireplace at the Library of the Dodge House is highly decorative compared to the house. It is a vibrant polychromatic pattern of arts and crafts Batchelder tile. The mantle shelf is wood, rather formal, with two wood display pedestals, and a highly grained wood wall backsplash. The hearth extension has a raised Batchelder tile.

The Living Room fireplace at the Raymond House1918 Long Beach is also arts and crafts Batchelder tile. It is not as vibrant or as complex a decorative pattern as the Dodge House. It also features a raised curb at the room side of the hearth extension.

It is surprising that these 1918 fireplaces are rather dated arts and crafts. They are not at all modern or even “proto-modern”. Considering both of these fireplaces as part of Gill’s legacy, it is not hard to look at his houses and see that he was maybe closer to the regional sensibilities of mainstream design trends, rather than to the explosive modern creativity emerging at the time. This is particularly true if one considers that Gill’s fireplaces were built at the same time that F.L. Wright was building a masterpiece fireplace at the Hollyhock House, also in Los Angeles.

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT Hollyhock House, Los Angeles 1917

Wright would have enjoyed this superlative laden bombastic remark of the Living Room focal point: “the most cosmically conceived fireplace ever created”. It brings fire, water, earth and light all into a theatrical mystical place.

There are two major innovative elements to this fireplace: the skylight above the chimney breast, and the water filled moat that is the hearth. The skylight provides filtered sun light that grazes down the front of the fireplace, and then reflects off the water moat. The design concept of making a water filled moat function as a hearth must be original to Wright in 1917.

The water moat is fascinating because it both attracts attention, and demands caution. The top of the moat is flush with the level of the finish floor so it presents a (deliberate?) falling hazard. The effect is that any observer of this fireplace spectacle must stand away to view it all at a distance of awe. No one will casually lean against this monument, there is no space for other display, and no room for any sentimentality. The water moat also functions as an excellent spark arrestor to protect wood flooring and carpets from flying embers, but Wright was never concerned with such mundane occurrences. Tending the fire must have been very tenuous; placing a log on the fire must have on more than one occasion resulted in a foot dipped into the moat.

The fireplace opening has a threatening jaw like guillotine quality. The bas relief stone carving above the firebox is a somber futuristic landscape composition. The skylight wood tracery adds one more tedious element to the entirely overwrought assembly.

Wright must have seen the cosmos as a dark place at this time. At the conclusion of the house he wrote his client Aline Barnsdall: “…the building stands…it will take its place as your contribution and as mine to the vexed life of our time.”

The darkness of this fireplace is not all that was left us. The freedom to create new architectural form was unleashed by Wright during his entire career. Rudolph Schindler worked for Wright at the Hollyhock house. In less than six years Schindler would strip away the overwrought darkness and expand the architectural form innovation to create one of the greatest modern houses the world would barely see, and a fireplace form so familiar that by its ubiquity is almost invisible.

RUDOLPH SCHINDLER Lovell Beach House, Newport Beach, California1922

Schindler’s creation of new architectural forms in this house cannot be overstated. The structural system has five asymmetrical concrete frames supporting the two story volumes of the house, one story above ground. The interior spaces of the house are as richly interwoven as the solid building components. The exterior spaces merge with the interior spaces in a three dimensional sculpture that readily blurs any recognizable edge of inside and outside. Throughout the house, solid forms morph from one object into another. Interior walls flow out to become exterior walls without changing finish or shape. For instance: start at the interior dining room wall, follow the wall plane up to where it forms a planter box, then it turns to become the guardrail of the second floor balcony, the guardrail continues uninterrupted through the exterior window wall to become a mid height wall for the exterior sleeping porches, then morphs into the rear concrete structural frame. This is like a trip on a Mobius strip, where the strip surface changes width, and orientation. There are many surfaces in this house on which you can place your hand, pull your fingers across, and without losing touch with the surface, move from outside to inside, and from structural column to interior trim.

The Lovell Beach House was conceived 5 years before the Villa Savoy by Le Corbusier. When it was built there was not anything like it anywhere. The house exhibits all of the techniques of its construction: board formed concrete marks remain, exposed wood joists are uncovered ceilings, the doors and windows are creative carpenter assemblies of wood and glass. This house has a truly constructivist attitude that is not affected or artificial.

The main fireplace is a double cantilever opening. The broad opening is toward the living room, the narrow opening is toward the dining room. There is no post at the corner of the two openings. This may be the first use of the double cantilever at a fireplace. The floor level hearth does not uniformly follow the walls above the fireplace opening. The hearth provides only a narrow projection on the living room side, and has a deeper two stepped arrangement on the dining room side. This hearth configuration blurs further any conventional fireplace imagery. The built-in sofa is 90 degrees to the fireplace, abuts the hearth, and restricts walking between the dining room and the living room. The sofa cushion must get pelted regularly with flying embers. If we view this built-in sofa as Schindler’s manipulation of the traditional inglenook bench, we can see that he has created an asymmetrical pinwheel radiating from the fireplace out into the room, then into the building, then into the landscape. The fireplace is the vortex of the house, simultaneously the center of gravity and the center of an explosion.

There is one other fascinating fireplace in this house. It is directly below the living room fireplace. The living room is one full story above the beach. The five concrete structural frames allow the beach sand to move under house. The space beneath the house is intended as an open living space with the sand dune as the floor. It is open to the beach and to the ocean. The rectangular footprint of the living room fireplace extends down through the living room floor to just above the sand floor of the outside living space where it functions as a hood for beach fires. The original floor plan drawing labels this as a fireplace on the sand floor (the lower level is now enclosed living space). Schindler slices the bottom off the traditional rectangular shaft of the fireplace, and does not let it touch the ground! This would be a structural impossibility except that he used an adjacent concrete frame to support the hood and fireplace above.

Schindler took the conventional rectangular vertical shaft of a masonry fireplace, eroded it by creating the double cantilever fireplace, then sliced through it so that it is completely divorced from its own foundation. He further obliterated the conventional image by hiding the chimney roof penetration behind a parapet wall. This intense innovation of residential architectural form had never been seen before, and was only approached by Frank Lloyd Wright seventeen years later at Fallingwater. Similarities of these two buildings abound.

The double cantilever fireplace has become an anonymous, ubiquitous element. Schindler used it throughout his career, Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra occasionally used it later. John Lautner used it in his own home in the 1940’s, and created many new fireplace forms from it. It became a regular feature of 1950 ranch houses, and is still referenced by architects today.

Schindler’s own house in Los Angles (1921-2) and his Howe House (1925) both feature unique fireplaces with one side leg offset 4” behind the opposite side. These are his first seeds of the double cantilever fireplace form he invented and brought to full expression in the Lovell Beach House.

GEORGE WASHINGTON SMITH Ravenscroft, Santa Barbara, CA 1925

The dreamy flowing stucco forms of Mediterranean romantic revival architecture are all about the suspension of time and place. We can use architecture to pretend that we are in a remote place, or in a remote time. Usually the best romantic architecture does both.

George Washington Smith masterfully created magical romantic houses, full of historical pretending to distant places and times. He developed idiosyncratic forms that naturally belonged right where he put them, never insincere and never superficial.

Ravenscroft is a picturesque assembly of familiar forms and materials until you encounter the fireplace stair. A pair of winding stairs flanks a massive recessed fireplace. Above the fireplace is the landing that joins the top of the stairs.

The short wall above the fireplace opening has an additional layer of stucco in a broad rectangular shape that is an abstraction of a stone lintel, or a mantle, or a blanket thrown over the rail of the landing. The doors at the top of the landing are in a wall slightly recessed from the main bearing wall that supports the roof rafters. This room is simple and complex; obvious and mysterious; grounded and transformative. The dichotomy of modern and traditional architectural forms breathing the same air that is astounding.

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT Fallingwater 1939, Pennsylvania

This is a big, welcoming, happy family fireplace. Generous in size, it anchors a family living room that throws itself with cantilevers over the waterfall. The flying edges of the floors and terraces have no visible means of support, but the fireplace is secured on top of solid rock. A solid rock outcrop that Wright declared on his first visit to the wooded site to be the hearth of the home.

Wright campaigned his entire career for the “natural” home, the indigenous American home, free of classical reference and mindless conformity. It was a core value that never changed. At nearly 70 years of age, he had the opportunity to create the house that most celebrated that core value.

The fireplace is built directly on the natural stone outcrop. This is a factual, observable reality and also a transcendent spiritual act. It is the literal center of the house, and the spiritual center of the household.

If the house design started with the stone outcrop as the hearth, then the design of the cantilevered floors and terraces would have followed that initial concept. The cantilevered floors then became a necessity. The relationship of the house to the waterfall was set by the location of the fireplace.

Fallingwater is a passionate marriage of the manmade and the natural. The house exudes love of earth life. The structure of the house embraces the rocks and the slope of the site. Walls and roofs are bent and turned to avoid trees. The stream is honored, left unchanged and pristine.

ALBERT FREY, Frey House, Palm Springs? 1947-53

From the sublime of Fallingwater to the ridiculous of a grounded space craft, Frey creates an assembly that is unique, and it emotes the power of an unconstrained future. One might think there is no place for the ancient pastime of burning wood in this house. Yet there it is, getting sucked up the nozzle of a jet exhaust cowling.

CRAIG ELLWOOD Korsen House 1958

Ellwood was a practitioner of Mies van de Rohe rectangle box modernism. Homes with steel frame corner posts touch the ground on point. They support floating, horizontal floors and roofs. The compositions are balanced, resolved and stationary.

Much the same can be said about the fireplace here except that by holding back the ceiling plain, the top of the fireplace shoots through the roof in a dynamically unresolved manner. It is not clear if the fireplace is levitating, or if it is descending from above. This kind of visual dynamic is rare in the Miesian arena, but it shows that even in a tightly controlled vocabulary of architectural form, there is still great potential for innovation and experimentation. (Research the Smith House (’55-’58) in Malibu, it may have a similar more dramatic design).

F. GEHRY, B. MURPHY, F. FISHER Los Angeles, 1980s

Dennis Hopper’s house (1989) by Brian Murphy is in spirit an addition to the Arnoldi Triplex by Frank Gehry (1981). It has a prefabricated metal fireplace, with a hearth that is a metal pan filled with broken tempered glass fragments. It is a reference to the water moat hearth at the Hollyhock house by Frank Lloyd Wright, but cheaper and punker.

The Jorgensen guest house by F. Fisher has a prefabricated metal firebox that is open on two adjacent sides. It is a reference to Schindler’s Lovell Beach House fireplace, and to the double cantilever fireplace in the 1951 ranch house on the property.

The Post Modern period featured cartoon references of famous architecture. Iconic doors, windows, and roofs were susceptible to ridicule or reverence. So were chairs, paintings and fireplaces.

R. MEIER, 1988

Richard Meier houses are pristine. The architectural forms are derived from the early work of Le Corbusier. The houses present themselves as isolated objects; they make no accommodation for the landscape. They are always white.

The prefabricated fireplace unit with eight squares above it does a superb job of splitting the beautiful fall landscape into two parts. Any approach taken to hang an object above the fireplace would end in failure. The square is the most simplistic of all architectural forms. It is the easiest to contrive: the architect has to select only one dimension… and then use it twice.

The prefabricated fireplace unit with the abstract relief sits in the room as the house sits on the landscape. It really does not pretend to care about anything else. The assembly will not be receiving the urn of grandma’s ashes, a painting, or the elbow of a reminiscing uncle. It would be a riot to see Peter Sellers try to find a place on it for his umbrella drink.

INDEX OF ARCHITECT DESIGNED FIREPLACES

1. Thomas Jefferson, Monticello

2. Benjamin Latrobe, 1800 Federal (or Drayton Hall or Stafford Hall)

3. F. Furness, First Unitarian Parish house 1880

4. McKim, Mead and White 1910 baronial

5. Greene and Greene, Gamble House 1908

6. Irving Gill, Dodge House 1916

7. F. L. Wright, Hollyhock 1917

8. R. D. Schindler, Lovell Beach 1922

9. George Washington Smith, Ravenscroft 1925

10. F. L. Wright, Fallingwater 1939

11. Albert Frey, Frey House 1947-53 (B. Goff 1950)

12. Craig Elwood, Korsen House1958

13. Israel, Gehry, Fisher 1980s

14. R.Meier1988

“The Fireplace in Architectural History” has been registered with The Writers Guild of America, West, Inc. #1386761 on 10/09/09, by Charles Henry Bohl. The photographs reproduced here are for academic use only, and not intended for commercial purposes.