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Why the Fireplace Went Missing In Your Capitol Hill Home

by HillNow.com Sponsor — December 23, 2014 at 1:00 pm 0

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This regularly scheduled, sponsored Q&A column is written by Tom Faison of ReMax Allegiance at Eastern Market. Please submit your questions via email.

‘Twas the week before Christmas and Congress has left. Capitol Hill can finally let out its breath.

The stockings all hung by the … Wait! Where do I put my stockings? Who took the log out from under my nog? Where will I turn for rapid warming? To open gifts in the morning? That vacant wall is awfully boring.

Why would anyone have taken out my fireplace?

Almost all I know about how Capitol Hill homes were built, and why they were modified, I learned from George Pettie, a longtime Hill resident and home inspector with HomeCheck of America. George taught me over time that the construction and style of our homes are mostly a result of the economy of the time.

Weather and topography can dictate our shelter, he might point out. But he would also say it’s the cost and the financial feasibility of controlling the climate and moving the earth that has driven the styles and changes made to our homes.

George explained to me that while economics, aka cheap labor, may have allowed for decorative brick cornices and oak balustrades at the turn of the last century, the idea of an open fire, romantic as it seems, in one’s home on Capitol Hill during that period would have been preposterous. Residents didn’t have the luxury or willingness to trade what precious little heat they had for the look of an open fire. More efficient means of heating existed. Coal stoves and oil burners were more economical and stylish — the state of the art in heating then.

We were industrialized, after all. Aside from those living in earlier frame farm houses and “shotgun shacks” on Capitol Hill, if you had an open fireplace in a brick bay front on Capitol Hill between 1870 and 1915, you might have been considered a bumpkin, or perhaps a hillbilly hayseed far from Harper’s Ferry.

A great number of the “remaining” wood-burning fireplaces on Capitol Hill are actually modifications made during times of energy shortages. As recently as the ’70s, lines for rationed gas wound around the block, as Jimmy Carter pled with Americans to turn that thermostat down. For many homes, this meant open-heart surgery, as undersized flues were rebuilt and enlarged for the real-deal, wood-burning brick box — a predecessor to the metal pre-fab unit.

Economy rules on both ends. Compare the living room heat source used when your brick bay front was new, installed out of necessity, to the various types of fireplaces we use now. They were installed for nostalgia and atmosphere, and allowed by wealth.

So, Dasher and Dancer, they’ll never fit in. Their waistline are too big, our flues are too thin.

Poor Donner and Blitzen, how confused they would be, tugging Santa’s behind through a flat-screen TV.

The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of HillNow.com.

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