House Calls—Home is where the hearth is: keeping your bungalow fireplace safe and secure

Posted: September 16th, 2010 | Homes & Garden, Lifestyle | No Comments

By Michael Good
SDUN Columnist

Andy Waer’s inspiration was this fireplace belonging to his next-door-neighbors, Jerry Moreau and Mark Lopresti. Its decorative tiles are by Laird Plumleigh. (Courtesy Sande Lollis)

Compared to its Victorian predecessors, the California bungalow was the epitome of efficiency. There were built-in cabinets for everything—books, china, glasses, dishes and linens. There were clever innovations that were ahead of their time—the eponymous California Cooler, the storage cubby for milk delivery, the breakfast nook, built-in breadboard, ironing board, dish-drainer and plate racks. Then you had the back porch with its dual laundry sinks, icebox, separate delivery entrance and compact water heater (that needed to be turned off manually, or it would overheat and explode).

All this made glorious sense, at the time at least, and seemed both imminently practical and efficient. But then in the midst of all this pragmatism, standing front and center in the living room, was a throwback to medieval times: the inefficient, impractical fireplace. It was as if 20th century man still needed to huddle around the hearth for warmth and solace and to watch a wild boar slowly sizzle on a spit above the open flame. The bungalow fireplace might have made sense in Minnesota, but here in San Diego where the mean temperature is 71 in February, it flew in the face of logic.

Of course, what makes the bungalow so appealing today isn’t just practicality. It’s beauty. And fireplaces, even if they aren’t needed to warm the air, still warm the atmosphere of a room—and the heart.

When Amy and Andy Waer bought their house in South Park in 2006, they knew their fireplace was going to require some attention. It didn’t take a trained eye to see that gravity had gotten the better of the bricks in the firebox, which were slowly making their way to the floor. Then there were the tiles, which had been painted over. Outside, it looked like the chimney was pulling away from the wall. And, finally, there were the seller’s disclosures, which admitted to some structural problems.

“The amount of work that was needed and what was disclosed—definitely there was a discrepancy there,” Andy said.

Like many new homeowners, Andy and Amy had to prioritize. The foundation needed work, the roof needed replacing, and the garden was sucking up water. So they fixed the foundation, replaced the roof and Andy put in native plants, which seems appropriate, since Andy is, himself, a native.

Although he grew up in San Carlos, when it came to buying a house, he said, “I took a left turn and decided to look at a couple of neighborhoods I always had my eye on. We didn’t follow any of the stuff our real estate agent gave us. We just drove down the street, saw the house and the next day we put in an offer. The homeowner’s mother was out in the garden planting flowers, getting the house ready to put on the market.”

It was a fortuitous choice, Andy said, because not only was the house a good fit, the neighborhood was, too.

“Everyone is friendly and social,” he said. “We live as much in the neighborhood and with the neighbors as in the house. We’re lucky.”

When Andy and Amy got married, they got a block party permit, closed off the street, hired some local musicians and had friends from a neighborhood restaurant do the catering.

In a sense, that party has never stopped. This short block of Fir in South Park is the kind of street where people are always popping in, especially if something is going on, like your fireplace is slowly falling down.

So when he was at last ready to face the fireplace, Andy had the guy for the job: Jim Crawford, of Authentic Fireplaces.

“I’ve done six homes within view of Andy’s porch,” Crawford said.

But then Crawford’s done a lot of fireplaces in San Diego.

“I grew up building fireplaces with my father,” he explained. (He recently did a check-up on a fireplace he built with his father 33 years ago.) Crawford’s father and grandfather built stone chimneys in Northern Ireland. They moved from Ireland to England and then on to Canada, where they built fireplaces at the lodges in Jasper and Lake Louise.

“My father grew up building fireplaces also,” he said. “This is not just what I do for a living, this is a big part of who I am. I collect antique tiles and vintage brick. I have a passion for restoration. I know the history of antique brick and tile in Southern California. I’m a vintage fireplace aficionado.”

The leading pottery in early 20th century San Diego was California China Products. Although the company was only in business for 12 years, three of the partners then went out on their own, creating other tile factories. California China Products built the tile for the 1915 World’s Fair, the downtown train station and most of the houses in the West End neighborhood of North Park, where master builder David Dryden worked and lived. The North Park tiles are all hand-glazed and each one is unique. You won’t find anything like them in local tile stores.

When it came to choosing tile, Amy and Andy didn’t have far to look. Their next-door neighbors, Jerry Moreau and Mark Lopresti, had retiled their fireplace a few years earlier, using tiles from Laird Plumleigh, who has a studio in Leucadia.

“We wanted to support someone locally,” Andy said. “I liked the look and color of the tiles he makes, and he’s just a nice guy.”

When I bring up the irony of making a substantial investment in a fireplace when you live in sunny Southern California, Andy laughed, but said he actually can use the warmth.

“We live in a really small bungalow, but it breathes a lot,” he said. “None of the walls have insulation. The attic is uninsulated. The floor is uninsulated. In the winter, it’s warmer in our refrigerator than in the house. And the fireplace is going to collapse if we don’t do something.”

So this fireplace is going to be both practical and beautiful?

“I hope so. I guess this winter we’ll find out,” he said.

Fireplace FAQs

How do I know if my fireplace needs replacing?

“Homes built earlier than 1940 have unlined chimneys,” said Jim Crawford of Authentic Fireplaces. “If you don’t have a damper and you look up your chimney and see raw bricks, you need a liner. If the first layer of the chimney and fireplace are sound, if there’s no big cracks, it’s a candidate for repairs.” (Unlined flues are unsafe, and can lead to fires.) “If there are larger cracks between the wall and the chimney, if there’s leaning at the top, if there are vertical cracks inside, if it’s pulling away from the wall, if the hearth isn’t flat anymore, if there’s structural damage or sinking or settling, it’s not a candidate for repair.” Relining costs about $2,500-3,500. Removal and replacement runs about $14,000-$15,000.

Are these Batchelder tiles?

Probably not. If you have buff-colored, mat-finished square tiles on your Spanish or Tudor Style 1920s- or ’30s-era bungalow, they’re more likely Claycraft, according to Crawford. The best way to identify a tile is to look at it—unfortunately, it’s the back you need to look at, where you’ll find a stamp. To do that, you’ll have to remove the tile. Crawford has a collection of antique tiles, however, as well as vintage catalogues, and can help you identify your tiles. Although Ernest Batchelder was an interesting guy who did beautiful work and was a visionary and highly influential artisan and teacher, other manufacturers made equally stunning tiles. They just don’t have the name, or mystique.

Can I replace this one cracked tile?

Yes. But you might break three others getting it out. It’s probably best leaving this task to the professionals, who can remove the tile and replace any others they break in the process with vintage replacements, or replicas, that match. It’s also possible to retouch the cracked tile and make it blend in with the others.

My fireplace is painted. Can I sandblast the paint off?

Yes, but you’ll regret it. Sandblasting is too blunt a tool for this job. It will likely remove the paint—and half the tile or brick. Methyl chloride stripper shouldn’t hurt high-fired glazed tiles. (But grout and brick will prove more difficult.)

Why does my chimney lean?

It’s a combination of heat from the sun and gravity, Crawford said. As the sun, which is on the southern horizon in San Diego (particularly in the winter), unevenly heats the south side of the fireplace, the drying concrete between the bricks loses moisture faster on the south side, creating a tiny imperceptible lean to the chimney. Over the years gravity increases this effect, until the whole shebang eventually falls over. Crawford has traveled the world looking at fireplaces and he said in the Southern Hemisphere chimneys tilt to the north. (And toilets swirl clockwise—don’t say you never learn anything from this column.) Today, modern materials and better measuring devices allow chimney builders to make the chimney perfectly plumb so they don’t lean. Someday there will be no more leaning chimneys in Uptown, and the world will be a slightly less quirky place.

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