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.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published in February 2017 and has been updated with the most recent information.
We’ve reached that time of the year when our Instagram feeds will soon be filled with cozy fireside images rather than sunny beach selfies.
While today fireplaces are more commonly the centerpiece of a hygge-decor dream, it was only a couple hundred years ago that they were the central source of heat in a house.
In many of these houses, which primarily date from the 18th and early-19th centuries, it’s not uncommon to find a large, deep fireplace with an oven off to the side.
These sorts of fireplaces are referred to as “cooking fireplaces” and, as their name suggests, identify the main room food was prepared in when the house was first built. It might be tempting to label the room a “kitchen,” but modern kitchens only formed over the last hundred years. These early rooms were more multipurpose spaces, used for living, dining, and sleeping, in addition to cooking.
As technologies advanced—and coal and gas stoves offered more efficient and controllable means of heating a house and preparing food—cooking in a fireplace became obsolete. Sometimes, the drafty fireplaces were entirely blocked up and plastered over, but thankfully for us old-house lovers, that’s not always the case.
Today, we’re taking a look at a few houses that have held onto their cooking fireplaces. While they may not be where you actually whip up your next dinner, they might be perfect for your next Instagram pic.
Guilford, Connecticut (3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, $375,000)
Guilford is ideal for anybody who loves two things: the beach and old houses. The coastal Connecticut town has a great stock of well-preserved 18th and early-19th century homes, like this 1836 clapboard house.
The house’s layout is defined by the central chimney, which separates the first level into three main rooms, each with its own fireplace. The largest room, in the back—labeled the “keeping room” on the floorplan—is home to the cooking fireplace, with a handsome wood mantlepiece that surrounds the firebox and the door to the beehive oven.
“Keeping rooms” were multipurpose spaces for living and cooking, especially in the colder months: Since the most action was going on in that room—and it had the largest fireplace—it was generally the warmest room in the house.
The layout of the house now features a modern kitchen and, on the second floor, the conversion of what was likely a fourth bedroom into two full bathrooms. But the house retains the vast majority of its original character through its wide-plank wood floors and 12-over-12 windows. Even better: It’s just a 12-minute drive to the beach.
Canterbury, Connecticut (4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, $259,900)
Completed in 1780, this center-chimney Colonial is a great opportunity for someone looking to take on a project. The house has original hardware on its front door (and throughout the house, it seems) and features exposed wood beams in many of its rooms.
The house seems a bit worse for wear, though, noticeable especially in its cooking fireplace, which is now a place for storing odds and ends rather than for lighting a fire.
What’s encouraging, though, is that the metal crane used for hanging pots is still in the fireplace and the metal door still fronts the beehive oven. The mantle seems to have disappeared—there’s a faint shadow of one over the firebox. It’s time for somebody to either restore it (maybe the mantle resembled the moldings over the doors and windows in the room?) or dream up something entirely new.
New Ipswich, New Hampshire (3 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, $599,000)
You know that you’re an old-house nerd when you’re looking through photos of a house and get very excited when you come across an antique water boiler fully intact.
This brick Federal house—completed in 1833—has no shortage of fireplaces. In fact, it seems like the cooking fireplace in the living room is even a Rumford fireplace, which was quite de rigueur around the turn of the 19th century due to the way it efficiently heats a space.
However, what really caught our eye is the water boiler on the back of the fireplace. The boiler is essentially a large pot set into a brick heater (the iron door presumably opens to reveal a space to build a fire) that connects with the chimney like a normal fireplace. This bit of obsolete technology gives a clue to the room’s former purpose, which was likely a place for chores, cleaning, and storage. It’s just another vestige of the practical and central role that fireplaces once had in the home.