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Design Dilemma
Design Dilemma

Fireplace authenticity

Eric EbertNovember 26, 2012
Ever since moving into our late 1920s house, I've been perplexed by the fireplace and mantel. It seems to be a hodgepodge of different eras and I'd like to restore it if that is the case. The picture shows the lower half of the mantel which extends about six inches from the wall over the fireplace. The green brick is not actually brick, but some form of plaster. I've noticed that the spaces under both shelves (left and right) is hollow, but I haven't pried the wood off to see what's back there. My question is does this seem like it's authentic, and if not, how do I go about restoring it?

Thanks in advance to everyone who helps.
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Let us see the whole wall. Also are there other built-ins in the house? A photo of these and the outside of the house would also help.
    Bookmark   November 26, 2012 at 7:50PM
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Eric Ebert
This is what I can find on my computer. I'll take a few new ones and add them.
    Bookmark   November 26, 2012 at 8:53PM
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This is not authentic anything but is an anomaly. There is nothing you can do with it that will ever really look right. It looks like a troll livs there or a Hobbit. I am sure that's not what you want.... so here's what to do in order to de-fuse the ugliness. Remove the TV. Remove the icky fire screen. Paint everything except the surround stones a cream color. Leave the surround stones as they are. Then get some books and fill all the shelves with books. Not paperbacks. No tchotchkes, because the whole wall is to "tricky" looking as it is. Books will give you some parallel lines and simplify the harsh architecture so it won't be so displeasing to the eye.
    Bookmark   November 26, 2012 at 9:16PM
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Are you sure the green area is plaster? It almost looks like tile that has been painted.

I love you house. My neighborhood was built by one man in the 20s through the 50s and has many cottages like your style. If you lived in the NYC area, you could go the the New York Public library and view magazines from the twenties and thirties. They were big on house design then. It was a period of colonial revival and people, like Harold Cheel, built whole neighborhoods in a fantasy styles from Brittany, cottages and colonial style homes.
2 Likes    Bookmark   November 26, 2012 at 9:43PM
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Aja Mazin
Love the house!
    Bookmark   November 26, 2012 at 9:49PM
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I think the fireplace itself is authentic, and maybe the baseboard and the mantel. I think the rest was someone's attempt to update it circa 1980 or so. especially the shelves on top. But it could be authentic--hard to tell, but was probably painted in muted earthy tones orginally if it was. If you are keeping it, I would keep the stonework, trim on the mantel part and the baseboard and paint the rest.

You have a cute little storybook cottage--very charming. If you post a picture of the whole wall it would be easier to figure out. Even if it is old, it may not be worth keeping the whole thing, although the stonework is nice. Textured plaster was quite common in the 20's--do you have it anywhere else?

When I put it in Photoshop, I could see there is sort of a tile embossed pattern there, so I think that it is some sort of painted wallboard. Perhaps the original fireplace is hiding underneath and was starting to look stained or was crumbling and this was put over it. You could try making a little drill hole in the side of the bookcase toward the fireplace to see what you hit, and then spackle it shut. It will be a messy job to tear it off and at least it was nicely done. Maybe wait until the kids are older for that.

Is that a baby gate in the fireplace?

Anyway, light green is the wrong color and it looks a lot better in other colors. Here's a few examples.
3 Likes    Bookmark   November 27, 2012 at 12:02AM
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Hi. If you can afford to, they make really awesome electric stoves that put out some warmth. You can use your fireplace without gas or logs. Cleaner, pretty and you can keep your fireplace. I agree with houssan, do a little research. The tiles under may actually be authentic. The new stuff might be the stone. :=) Are any of your neighbor's homes still authentic? Might be a good way to learn more.
let us know what you discover...
    Bookmark   November 27, 2012 at 12:43AM
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Eric Ebert
I'll try to take a few more pictures this evening and post them. The gate is in the fireplace because we have a toddler and we have since repainted the tile/plaster a shade of gray closer to the bottom right in victorianbungalowranch's post. I don't think they are tiles because the painted area feels like it is seamless despite having grout groves.

I did take a look in the basement and the fireplace brick runs down the foundation to the basement floor. I can see the bricks but they have been painted white and are flush with the cinder blocks that comprise the rest of the basement wall. Anyway, I'll get some more pics up. Thanks for the feedback so far.
    Bookmark   November 27, 2012 at 10:01AM
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Brick in the basement is typical for any kind of old fireplace. The whole thing is masonry construction, including the liner probably. Have you had it cleaned recently? When the child is older, a nice fireplace screen would help--measure carefully to fit.

Any kind of demolition kicks up a lot of dust and you don't know if there is lead (pre-1978) or asbestos (surprisingly common in glues and wallboard and all kinds of things prior to around 1985 or so), which can be particularly dangerous for a toddler. If you can, live with it as much as possible, just paint, and wait until the youngest is at least school age, and then isolate the area with plastic when/if you take it out.
2 Likes    Bookmark   November 27, 2012 at 4:23PM
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Eric Ebert
Here are current images of the exterior chimney and interior room.
2 Likes    Bookmark   November 27, 2012 at 5:51PM
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Aja Mazin
How lovely!
2 Likes    Bookmark   November 27, 2012 at 5:54PM
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Beautiful house. I suggest that you try two avenues--first to find anyone who would know anything about this particular house. Search county records for who owned it when and find them or their descendents. Ask neighbors. Also try to find out who built your house and if it was architect designed. If the office still exists they might have the blueprints from way back when. You might also find other houses designed by the same group.

Second--try the National Trust for Historic Preservation for suggestions of professionals or interested citizens or even knowledgeable real estate agents who could look at your place. If you have a local or state preservation group that would be great.

Of course, do all this in your copious free time! But it is a great treasure hunt and you will meet interesting people along the way.
2 Likes    Bookmark   November 27, 2012 at 6:22PM
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Now that I see the whole room I don't think it is so bad. How about a muted pumpkin/rust type color for the "stucco" to pick up the color of the floors and the Art Deco poster and the pillow? Or the teal type color I posted and switch pillows? Or even brown, like the wood on top?

A darker color will tie the top and bottom together, de-empahcize any clutter.

Saying that, I'm pretty sure it isn't original, although something fairly similar might have been there. The mantel all the way accross and built-ins were common then.

Also, I would put another chair next to the fireplace, mayb a small scale type side chair, and then the bookcase will be partially hidden. Or maybe a plant and a stool or a child's chair. I got a sturdy hickory style rocker for my son and he used it for10 years!

The mirror behind the TV is a little distracting. Perhaps you could darken it with some window film or something.

You must have a 14 mm lens or something though! I guess the room is cozy!

Ivy is nice but it wrecks havoc with your masonry. I would consider taking it down. You have wire cut brick in a range of tones, which is common for that era of house, but brick on the outside doesn't mean it was brick or anything else on the inside.


I dug around and found a few pictures that are somewhat similar. Gustave Stickley published a magazine called the Craftsman in the early 1900s, and it featured a number of designs with mantels that are rather low slung and stretch all the way accross the room, with the fireplace in the center and built-ins on each side, something like what you have. Typically the space above was a fairly deep open shelf perhaps with a pair of small windows on each side of the chimney and some skeleton wainscotting or woodwork. The attached images are from this magazine.

I have seen pictures of these with the stone arch and stucco or brick or tile surround, but having trouble finding any at hand. By the late 1920s, all kiinds of styles were blended, and your house tends toward the storybook cottage mode. While the arches aren't typical, they are entirely possible.
2 Likes    Bookmark   November 27, 2012 at 7:43PM
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Aja Mazin

Wouldn't some white accents on the shelves tie it together?
    Bookmark   November 27, 2012 at 8:56PM
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That could look nice on top with some careful arranging. They are a busy family and maybe it isn't too practical now. Maybe some doors on the bottom shelves would help too and give them a place for the books and toys for the kids.They could be a rustic wood or lattice perhaps, or painted to match the stucco.

I don't think the current color is awful or anything, but when I saw the orange and teal and all the white, I thought it could use a bit more color, and it would be period appropiate. Problem with doors is that the kids might leave them open all the time and mounting them might be a challenge.
1 Like    Bookmark   November 28, 2012 at 12:27AM
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Aja Mazin

Thank you!

I totally agree with keeping it period appropriate when ever possible!!!
[I have trouble w. choosing/using ''non-neutral'' colours....]
    Bookmark   November 28, 2012 at 1:24AM
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COASTROAD Hearth & Patio
It looks to me like the bottom half of the wall is original, although it would not have been painted originally, and if the upper cabinets match the window casings and baseboards in the rest of the room, I'd have to say it is original as well, although some of the detailing is a bit odd (and either the mirror or the TV has got to go . . . probably the mirrors).

Living in a '20s house myself, I've found that sometimes "original" isn't all it's cracked up to be, and there are things that you can do in harmony with period style that will be more practical and/or more attractive without betraying the spirit of the home.

The fairytale cottage style of the home is very nice, and I wouldn't change anything radically unless there was a functional reason to do so.

P.S. you can get some nice fireplace doors or an insert that will negate the need for a child gate and make the fireplace more practical as well.
1 Like    Bookmark   November 28, 2012 at 6:04AM
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Hi all. I am Eric's wife, and wanted to weigh in a bit. We actually are quite happy with the color scheme and decor right now and weren't necessarily looking for tips in that area, but we certainly appreciate the insight. As you can tell from the photos, we have a 1-year-old, so our home is very much a work in progress, and design details come and go depending on our son's new tricks and schemes. The faux brick around the fireplace was painted a rust color when we bought the house, and we've gone progressively brighter to try to lighten up the room, since we really only have the one wall of windows in that room, and they face east, so we don't get sun all day. For now, we're sticking with the current gray (which is Behr's Sparrow).

Long-range plans for us have been to tidy up those bookshelves with wicker baskets to declutter a bit, and to incorporate more color (oranges and robin's egg blues) with throws, art, etc. We also plan to pick up a couple slipper chairs that incorporate some color and move our large armchair back into the office (it's just a placeholder in there for now). A tufted ottoman may be in the works, too, as it actually is a fairly large room. @Aja Mazin, I like your idea of bringing white up onto the mantel, so perhaps we'll put that in the works, too.

@victorianbungalowranch, your insight is wonderful! We are of course ALWAYS trying to keep things as authentic as possible (hence the post in the first place). I only wish we had piano windows up on that wall instead of those awful mirrors! We've talked about getting rid of the mirrors, but are simply afraid of what we might find behind them :) Our biggest concern is simply trying to find out if this is original to the home, and if it is, we'll be happy to stick with it and make it our own.

I did some exhausting research to find the daughter of the original owner of the house, but came up with nothing. I did contact the couple who bought it from her back in the 80s, though, in hopes that they will respond and share with us any insight as to what they know to be original, what work the did, etc. We know there was only one building permit on record for the house, and that happened in the 90s. But I'm not sure if that's a reliable indicator, or whether folks just went around those bells and whistles back in the 20s/30s.
2 Likes    Bookmark   November 28, 2012 at 6:14AM
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Building permit records often do not go back very far, depending on where you live. The smaller the town the worse it is. And lots of folks don't bother, and they aren't required for cosmetic changes anyway.

It is great you are going so far to research your houe. It is like a detective story sometimes. But I agree that changing the fireplace to something period appropiate is OK, even if it is original.

You seem dedicated to staying true to the spirit of the house, so that is a project you can plan for later, maybe adding some windows there (South right?) because it could be opening a can of worms now and not worth the trouble, esp. with a little one around. You never know, you might have them behind the mirrors, although I would think it would show more from the outside, unless the house was completely restuccoed. These kind of projects have a way of multiplying..

Get a contractor who really knows peiod millwork and detailling to get it right--fortunately it was pretty simple then but it seems like a lot of young guys don't know or don't care about time-honored practices of window casing and such. Seems like building a decent railing or porch trim that is slanted to shed rain and has spacers to prevent rot is a lost art now.

Love the big chair BTW and the general decor. On Houzz you often get more than you bargained for. :) I'm afraid you probably won't know if it is original until you start demolition, and then you are committed. Strict preservationists may disagree, but it is OK to keep the best bits and bring the rest to something appropiate, but the devil is in the details.

I'm sure a lot of 70s and 80s Victorian renovations looked great at the time, but look dated in retrospect. The problem is, we can't escape the aesthetic of our times, even when we try to be authentic. Like an old movie with entirely wrong maikeup or hair for the georgeous period clothing, or an obviously not quite right period portrait, you can just tell, and it can be hard to explain why in words. Sometimes updating can look great, but other times, it too will just look dated in 10-20 years.

That's why understanding period aesthetic, even if you make different choices, is important. For example, hgh contrast color schemes are in now, but they weren't in the 20s. Color harmonies were very subtle--could be light, but generally on the cream rather than white side. Both can look great, but when something is out of harmony, lowering the contrast can help. Upping it and painting out the disharmonous elements can help too, but creating balance can be trickier.

Oh well, I'm preaching to the choir here, but it is something I've been thinking a lot about lately.
2 Likes    Bookmark   November 28, 2012 at 9:56AM
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I have a 1924 cottage with a mantel and bookshelves somewhat along the sale lines. The bookshelves originally had doors but those were lost some time ago. I would think that the space under the bookshelves would be open. The plaster on this fireplace appears to be an original knockdown texture that I've painted and then glazed.

I love the cottages from this time period and all the little details
2 Likes    Bookmark   November 28, 2012 at 5:26PM
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Aja Mazin

I think there exists a natural harmony and when achieved is timeless.
1 Like    Bookmark   November 28, 2012 at 5:35PM
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