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A Change of Hearth : Whether Contemporary or Antique, a Mantelpiece Adds a Warmth of Its Own to a Room

March 05, 1994|From Associated Press

For centuries the fireplace was our source of heat and light, the place we cooked meals, warmed quilts, dried clothes, read books, the place the family met in the morning and gathered at the end of the day.

Today, we may get heat from a gas furnace and light from an electric current, but a crackling fire still has a magnetism that is hard to resist.

Sometimes a home comes with just the right one, sometimes not. Increasingly, homeowners seem willing to change a mantelpiece to reflect their tastes, whether contemporary, traditional or antique.

Designer and author Alexandra Stoddard knows firsthand the difference a mantelpiece can make. When she married, she and her furniture moved into a Park Avenue apartment. The apartment was roomy and handsome, but Stoddard quickly discovered that the 1920s English-style painted mantel that dominated the living room was at odds with her own light and airy French Provincial style.

"The proportions looked all wrong," she says. "The mantel just towered over the furniture." Her solution was a direct one: Instead of trying to make the furniture she loved fit the architecture, she changed the architecture to fit the furniture, replacing the English mantel with an antique French one. Stripped and bleached, the new mantel transformed the room.

But that fabulous mantel is not always so easy to find. Too often the style is right but the size is wrong. Or the size is right, but the materials are wrong. And when everything is right, the price may be way over budget--a good antique mantel can cost $6,000 or more.

That's where reproduction mantelpieces can come to the rescue. With a reproduction, you not only have a wide selection of styles to choose from, but you also can often dictate size and proportion. "For many people, choosing a reproduction is a matter of simply not being able to find the right antique," says Sylvia Bianchi, West Coast manager of Danny Alessandro Ltd., a company that deals in both antique and reproduction mantels.

Mantelpieces, as we know them, date to the 17th and early 18th centuries, when European architects began borrowing designs from classical Rome.

"There weren't fireplace surrounds in ancient Rome, so what the architects did was adapt the whole notion of door and window frames," explains John Bivins, an architectural historian and woodcarver. "A mantel is essentially the shelf at the top of a door frame with an entablature underneath. The overmantel is a window."

Most of today's reproduction mantelpieces fall into three broad style categories: English, Federal or American and French.

English mantels, inspired by 18th- and early 19th-century originals, tend to be formal and ornate, and often sport carvings of fruit, flowers or seashells. Federal mantels are plainer, with more austere geometric decorations. French mantels are often softly curved. French reproductions are available in both wood and cast stone, a molded material made of stone dust.

A true reproduction mantel is taken line for line from an antique model. The Winterthur Museum, for instance, has commissioned Driwood Moulding, a South Carolina company, to produce exact copies of the mantel and overmantel from its famous Port Royal Parlor.

Danny Alessandro Ltd. and the William H. Jackson Co., which deal in antique mantels, both offer reproductions based on pieces from their collections.

Typically a mantel is between 54 and 60 inches high with a 42-to 55-inch opening, but wood mantels can be custom-ordered in different sizes. Although these are not true reproductions in the strictest sense, adaptations are a real help if you have an unusual fireplace opening to fit or an awkwardly shaped room. Once you've selected a mantel style, the company will help you through the ordering process, which is relatively easy.

If you're ordering a wood mantel, you'll have a choice of several finishes, or no finish at all. The only measurements needed are that of the firebox opening, but you should mention any nearby windows, architectural elements or other limitations that may affect the size of the mantel shelf.

Another important consideration--one that did not trouble our ancestors--is building codes, which can sometimes be met only by a custom-size design. (Some codes require, for instance, at least seven inches of non-flammable surround between the fireplace opening and the wood mantel.)

If you can't find what you need in catalogues of existing reproductions, some companies will work from photographs to make a copy. You can decide just how close to the original you want, but remember that the price goes up sharply if the manufacturer can't use stock components.

A beautiful fireplace warms a room in any season. And a good reproduction has a special glow, linking us to the days when the hearth was truly the heart of the home.

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