On the west wall of the room, two large-scale elements competed for our attention: a brick fireplace and a massive Zenith television — a set so dense and heavy that it exhibited its own micro-gravitational field. It was in this room, strawberry Quik in hand, that I spent the lion’s share of my childhood. This was ages ago — in the 1970s, back when tiny flakes of frozen water, or “snow” as we called it, would routinely fall from the sky.
For nine months out of the year, the Zenith and its cavalcade of sitcoms won the battle for the attention of my family, but during the dark days of winter the fireplace had the upper hand. During those months, we sparked up a fire almost every night.
I became hooked on the mildly dangerous rituals involved in making one: I loved splitting logs with a maul and bringing the chunks inside in our white canvas log carrier; I loved executing the intricate network of kindling and logs that would ensure a roaring blaze; and perhaps most of all, I loved windmilling the jumbo fireplace matches across the sandpaper matchbox-bottom like Pete Townsend, then touching them to the newspaper wads strategically located in the log structure.
I loved the full sensory experience of a roaring fire — the intense heat, the woodsy tang of smoke in the air, the crackle and spark as the fire took hold and the mesmerizing flame patterns that shifted through the night as it lived and died.
Flash back to a cold night in late February 1977. That’s me, the skinny kid with the overalls, holding a bag of Jet-Puffed marshmallows. That’s me, staring into the fire, transfixed by the fleeting rhythms of the flames. That’s me, rosy-cheeked from the heat, promising my future self that a wood-burning fireplace would mark the center of my future home, once I was old enough to own one.
Fast-forward 27 years to a steel-gray November day in 2004. That’s an older version of the previous me, standing in the front room of an old house that I had just bought — the house I currently occupy. That’s me reading the home inspection report for said house, frowning at the crippling pronouncement that the dream-dashing home inspector had scribbled 20 minutes before, as he sized up the house’s cracked, west-leaning chimney: “Wd Brng Frplce: Unusbl.” Unusable! I was devastated.
Without shelling out the price of a late model Lexus to completely rebuild it, my dream of charred marshmallows and newspaper rolls and Pete Townsend matches and roaring fires seemed to be just that: an unrealizable vision, as abstract and distant as the fading memories of my own childhood. Dejected, I bought the place anyway, once I noticed that most of the other old houses in the neighborhood had wonky chimneys.
After a couple of years of renovating everything in the house but the fireplace, I revisited the issue. I visited a fireplace showroom with my wife, and we discovered that some wily Scandinavians had invented a perfect solution to our conundrum: a self-contained, wood-burning fireplace insert, sized to fit within our fireplace, with an insulated flue sized to fit within our cracked yet otherwise structurally sound chimney. Genius.
Unlike the picturesque yet inefficient fireplace of my youth (which shot most of the heat up the chimney ) the insert was engineered to extract as much heat as possible from the burning wood and to direct it outward into the house — a turbo-charged micro-furnace. And it looked cool, too: its sleek modern lines complemented the existing old-school wood trim in our front room and reinforced the old-meets-new theme that we established for our home.
Now, as I sit in front of the fire with my family, I am reminded of my childhood and the role that a roaring fire played in warming it up. And as I add a chunk of oak and sit back, I can see my future moving forward. And with my warm wife on one side, and my warm 3-year-old on the other, it is decidedly rosy.
Architect Dan Maginn is a principal at El Dorado Inc. in Kansas City.
©2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)
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