Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fireplaces New and Old

The Fireplace is Queen of the Ball

Last week the wife and I were down in beautiful Charleston, South Carolina, where she was attending a business conference. We spent three wonderful nights at the Francis Marion Hotel, right smack in the center of town -- and on her company's dime, no less. That's the hotel ballroom in the picture above. Not too shabby, eh?

The 1920s-era hotel was painstakingly restored back in 1996, combining art deco charm with modern conveniences. We had a flatscreen TV, down pillows and a seventh story view across the lovely green expanse of Marion Square. Indeed, if I stood at our window and leaned far enough to my right I could just make out the glorious new bridge across the Cooper River, which really is a site to behold. As hotels go, I'd recommend the Francis Marion to anybody headed down to the South Carolina low country.

There was only one problem. Specifically, unless you wandered down to the ballroom, which is dominated by the gorgeous marble-accented fireplace pictured above, there was no place for the wife and me to warm our toes after we got back from a night on the town.

I don't blame the hotel, so you know. At twelve stories and umpteen rooms, the Francis Marion is one of the tallest buildings on the Peninsula, and no matter how much I love a good crackler, putting fireplaces in every room of a twelve story building just isn't practical these days. I mean, can you imagine the venting problems?

Still, I wanted to experience the Holy City on a more intimate level before we headed home, so on the last day of the wife's conference I looked around until I found a B&B -- with a functioning hearth. Then, once the wife had wrapped up her work responsibilities, I surprised her by announcing that I'd booked two more nights in the city.

And here's where I started to feel conflicted. Yes, our room at the B&B was absolutely gorgeous, and yes, it did have a fireplace. In fact, it was a very nice fireplace, with state-of-the-art gas logs and classy glass doors. Unfortunately, it didn't fit the room's decor at all and almost seemed like an affront to the antebellum house.

I mean, there we were, lying in a four-poster bed in a room that may have well have slept George Washington at some point in our city's glorious history, and the modern-era fireplace I'm staring into looks like it could have been custom-built for a loft in SoHo. The original facade and mantel were either torn out completely our covered over in drywall. I'd throw up a picture, but it's almost too depressing.

I don't know, maybe it's me, but I tend to think an 18th-century bedroom ought to have an 18th-century hearth, don't you? Sure, maybe the original brick was a little damaged, or maybe the mortar had begun to crumble in spots, but in this day and age there's rarely an excuse for tearing out the old and putting in the new -- especially if the old is that old. I mean, c'mon, we're talking history here. I bet they could have fixed the darned thing with a quick scrub and a coat of fireplace paint. Heck, they could at least have tried, right?

Disappointed as I was, the fireplace situation at this particular B&B (which I won't name here, as it was otherwise a lovely place) did get me thinking. It also got me wondering how other people out there feel about fireplace restoration. In fact, what do you think, FD readers? Should old fireplaces be ripped out or lovingly restored to their original appearance? Should wood burners be replaced with modern gas log systems? Should iron doors always be replaced with galss? Or should we try to find a compromise that satisfies our sense of nostalgia and our need for modern convenience and safety? I know my own opinions, but I'd welcome a few others. So whatever your take, I'd love to hear it . . .

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