Tips from the Architect: The Importance of the Hearth

April 23, 2015

Throughout history, humans have found connection in fire and the hearth. When humans discovered fire, there was an immediate need to enclose it and contain it. Fire quickly became an essential resource – providing light, warmth, and protection. Early civilizations collected around a community fire, and this was the basis for humans coming together. Initially fires were placed in rock formations or caves. The need for further protection from wind and other elements led to the development of round buildings surrounding each fire. Centralized community fires eventually led to private family fires, and the hearth as a gathering place remained central to daily life.

Early American houses had deep, walk-in hearths that provided large spaces for cooking and heating for the entire house. With developments in the strength and capacity of chimneys, multiple flues became common as a method for serving different rooms. The fireplace remained as the center of the main gathering room. At the end of the 18th century, a new shape was invented - a shallower box with coving on either side - that allowed for more heat to be reflected into the room. This smaller size allowed the mantel to flourish.

 After the Revolutionary War, Federal and Greek Revival style mantels became the common practice. Hearths quickly became more ornate with decorative tiling, fluting, moldings, and columns. Still located centrally in the main living space, the hearth became an expression of a family's style and ideals. As history has progressed, this sentiment has stayed the same.

To this day, the hearth remains central to our lives. Commonly located in the family room, it continues to represent coming together and community. The hearth and mantel are focal points in the room that homeowners can utilize to highlight their design aesthetics and style. The possibilities are endless when choosing materials, colors, and an overall theme, and it is important to consider your options when planning a design. No matter the time of year, the hearth will resonate as a piece of art within your home.