Hearths & Minds
Whatever its design, a fireplace is always the heart of a Maine home.
The association of fire with domesticity is so complete and so deep-rooted that it's hard for us to think of home without immediately conjuring up some notion of a fireplace. Our habits of speech reflect this, with variations of home and hearth occurring often as near synonyms. A writer in the 1600s could refer to "a town of fifteen hundred fires," while two centuries later, Thomas Carlyle used "hearthholders" to signify homeowners. Even today, it would be unsurprising (though perhaps a trifle quaint) to be invited to a hearth-warming party. [for the rest of this story, see the March 2008 issue of Down East]Of course this fire we're thinking of, crackling happily in the grate, is not the raging, all-consumptive monster that traditionally was classified - along with earth, air, and water - as one of the fundamental elements of which all being is composed. We understand that the tame fire in the hearth has a wild and deadly cousin, just as we know the dog stretched out on the rug has some kinship with the snarling wolf that is (proverbially speaking) at the door. The idea doesn't trouble us. After a few millennia of trial and error, we've bred them both into submission.
Naturally, our mental habit of linking home with fire plays out most clearly in domestic architecture: in our seemingly universal notion of what constitutes a safe, comfortable, welcoming place to live. There's a sweetly sappy tune from the hippie era, titled simply "Our House," that begins:
I'll light the fire, While you place the flowers. . . .
Thus, in a single breath, evoking just what we want our dream house to be: a place both warm and beautiful.
Hence, the fireplace.
You see fireplaces everywhere. But in Maine, where winter is serious business - and spring and fall, for that matter, aren't to be taken lightly - the fireplace has always been a matter of first importance in the making of a home. It's no exaggeration to say that, historically, a Maine house was built around the chimney. And for good reason. The fireplace powered the whole domestic enterprise, not just warming the home but cooking dinner, drying laundry, heating bath water, lighting the interior, and bringing comfort to the soul.
Most Mainers recognize a center-chimney Cape when they see one. In many towns it's the oldest local housing type, dating from the 1700s. The design is pure practicality: a masonry core containing as many as four individual hearths, with rooms arranged symmetrically around it. But the general notion of building a house around the chimney dates back to the English cottage of the earliest settlers, in which the fireplace usually anchored one end of a single-room structure, with loft space above under a high-pitched roof. This basic theme was repeated, in increasingly sophisticated and appealing variations, in the Garrison, Saltbox, and other quintessential New England house types.
The proliferation of architectural styles during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - all still bound to the tough Maine climate - encouraged builders to elaborate the fireplace into a multitude of forms. Making a virtue of necessity, craftsmen refined this sooty, utilitarian object into a work of aesthetic appeal and even formal elegance, while simultaneously improving its efficiency as a heating source. The effects spilled over into interior design, with rooms being organized around the omnipresent, irresistible hearth. In some instances - like the Arts and Crafts inglenook - spaces were designed solely to allow proximity to the fire. As the twenty-first century dawned, Mainers were building masonry surrounds for their woodstoves, while specialized artisans were adapting the Russian-style fireplace or masonry stove as a solution to present-day heating requirements.
It's a long way from the fire pit in the tepee. And the journey continues, as long as home and hearth are bound so tightly in our minds.
Putting a fireplace in your home adds ambience but also creates a way for heat to escape your cozy quarters. Here are some tips for enjoying the cozy glow without running up your oil bill.
1. Consider gas. The flames produced by modern propane or natural gas units are similar enough to a wood fire to provide atmosphere but, because they're sealed behind a wall of glass, don't suck heat from the rest of the house. "In general a traditional fireplace is very beautiful, but it's a loser as far as energy goes," says architect Dwayne Flynn, of Elliott Elliott Norelius in Blue Hill.
2. Time your fires carefully. If you leave a raging fire burning when you go to bed, you'll also need to leave the damper open, which when the fire goes out is like leaving the back door open. When you're leaving for an extended period, consider sealing off the damper with insulation.
3. Do your research. Several Scandinavian companies make self-contained, wood-burning fireplaces out of either soapstone or metal that offer the glow of a natural fire but do not draw air from a home's living spaces. Examples include Rais (www.rais.com) and Tulikivi (www.tulikivi.com).
4. Don't forget to feed. Today's energy-efficient houses can be so airtight, a home can be de-pressurized by a fireplace drawing air into itself. Make sure the fire is getting enough oxygen, even if it means cracking a window.
5. Size doesn't matter. In terms of heat, a larger fireplace doesn't necessarily mean a hotter fire or a larger opening through which to lose warmth. A more important consideration is the construction cost of a larger fireplace - most are priced by the square foot.
6. Mind your materials. Take note of what types of rocks you enjoy outdoors and ask your mason to bring them indoors. "When you're out walking and you come across a natural stone face, it's kind of calming," remarks Jeff Gammelin, owner of Freshwater Stone in Orland. "A lot of the large granite pieces we use respond to that sense of the natural formations that you see in this area."
- By: Richard Grant