Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
It’s no secret that old houses are filled with quirks. We see those quirks as connections to the past, which can be enhanced—or sometimes completely uncovered—during a renovation.
Maybe those signs of history come in the form of a remnant of old wallpaper or a name carved into a wooden ceiling beam. But if you ask us, the people who are really lucky discover previously hidden architectural details, like a fireplace.
While it’s sad to think about why somebody would brick over a fireplace in the first place, it does make sense. Once fireplaces were no longer necessary to heat houses after steam, gas, and electric heating came into play, they became another place where heat could escape. In some cases, the fireplace flue gets sealed up and the firebox becomes purely decorative. In other cases, the whole thing gets bricked up and plastered over, erasing all trace of it.
We’ve always been intrigued what it’s like—and what it takes—to uncover a blocked up fireplace. And a few days ago, while scrolling through our Instagram feed, we saw somebody live blogging the restoration of a cooking fireplace in their 16th-century (!) farmhouse in the English countryside. We took it as a sign that our questions needed to be answered.
“We bought the house about 18 months ago,” homeowner Colin Gray told us. “The majority of the house dates to the 16th century and has five fireplaces. Some were intact when we first moved in, but we have uncovered two of them.”
We were curious—when looking at a blank wall, as Gray did in this case, how did he know that a fireplace was hidden behind? How did he know how deep the firebox would be?
First off, thoroughly research your house if you think that it might be hiding a fireplace. Nobody wants to blindly start demolition only to be left with a hole in the wall. For Gray, that meant turning to a survey done on his house that indicated where fireplaces had likely been in the house.
No documentation? Don’t be afraid to do some detective work of your own. Look in the attic to see if you can tell how many flues are built into a chimney. That is a good indication for how many fireplace are likely in the house.
“The fireplace we uncovered in the past week was filled with cinderblocks that were probably installed in the 1960s,” Gray told us. “The room is quite small and it was likely used as a kitchen. We found broken-up pieces of iron, probably from a stove, in the fireplace with the cinderblocks.”
As for knowing when to stop chipping away at the brick, it seems like a combination of guesswork and proceeding with caution. “I first took a sledgehammer to the wall, and then did more fine-tuned work with a chisel,” said Gray. “You sort of need to just see how it goes as you work on the fireplace.”
When uncovered, these fireplaces are in far from perfect condition. Gray had to replace the main lintel of a fireplace he uncovered last December with reclaimed wood. The flue of the fireplace he unearthed in the past week has been backfilled with brick and other debris, meaning this fireplace will probably stay non-working. Rebuilding flues can quickly run your renovation budget up, so be strategic about the fireplaces you bring up to working order.
These fireplaces are just one part of a tentative two-year-long renovation that Gray has planned for his 16th-century farmhouse, which boasts original stone mullion windows. “They’re quite common here in Somerset—we’re fairly spoiled!” he said. But the way that he approaches the uncovering of the fireplace, by letting the house indicate to him what needs to be done, which cinder blocks need to come down, is not unlike the ethos he brings to the renovation process in general.
“You have to understand the age of a property. Don’t over modernize it and enforce your ideas onto it,” he said. “You let the property speak to you, with what colors to use and what furnishings you may have—and above all, don’t be afraid to do as much of the work as you can yourself.”