Fireplace love: How to update this cherished home focal point

While the kitchen is often referred to as the "heart" of the home, the fireplace is referred to as the "hearth" of the home.

In today's modern homes, a fireplace is not needed to heat the house or cook food, but it remains a very popular option in new-home construction and a very desirable feature in existing homes.

Centuries ago, fireplaces were essential to the house. The fireplace provided warmth and a reliable method to heat water, cook food and bake bread. Around the 1850s, the fireplace evolved from its original purpose into a design highlight of a room, featuring elaborate tile work, natural stone and intricately detailed mantels made from a variety of natural materials.

Homes in the North, East and Midwest typically have fireplaces located in the center of the house to distribute heat in a 360-degree direction. In the warmer South and West, the fireplace is usually located at either end of the home. This helps to minimize heat and keep the home cooler in warmer months when the fireplace is being used.

Basic fireplace design has not changed too much, but the function, safety features, products and materials used in fireplace construction certainly has. Today's fireplaces are better than ever.

Fireplace rehab

Naperville interior designer Joan Kaufman transformed an existing fireplace in the living room of a Glen Ellyn home.

She designed a tall fireplace backdrop in charcoal gray by re-cladding the existing brick surround with wood and granite. The new design for the fireplace surround incorporates new lighting, clean lines with white painted trim and millwork, a granite firebox and a hearthstone floor.

The existing dark cherry mantel was removed, and the entire structure was rebuilt, resulting in a thoroughly updated fireplace that significantly improved the room's appearance. By using the full height backdrop, Kaufman accentuated the architectural space. The living room is now the family's favorite room in the home.

In this Lake Forest home, designer Lisa Wolfe completely redesigned an existing painted brick fireplace surround by covering it in marble and included a clever cubby for wood storage. Courtesy of Lisa Wolfe

Contemporary flair

Homeowner Gina Frank of Lake Forest contacted interior designer Lisa Wolfe of Lisa Wolfe Design, also of Lake Forest, when she wanted her large painted brick fireplace in her newly purchased farmhouse-style home completely redesigned to better suit her own "Bohemian" energy and penchant for color.

The original fireplace was heavy appearing and dominated the room, and the brick seemed more appropriate for the home's exterior than the interior. Wolfe and Frank decided on "Calacatta Cremo" marble to cover the brick fireplace because of its classic appearance. The marble has a striking vein pattern with prominent swatches of gold, a color that is continued throughout the home.

A functional feature of the fireplace is the adjacent storage cubby that houses neatly stacked firewood.

"I like that the fireplace looks so sleek and modern without appearing cold," Frank said. "I felt the room needed a sleeker design and a less casual look. Although the fireplace consists of a rather large marble piece, it does not overwhelm the room and still feels warm and welcoming."

For this Glenview home, architect/remodeler Michael Menn specified polished brown marble for the fireplace, which provides a distinct color contrast to the all-white theme of the formal room. Photo by Dennis Jourdan

Traditional look

A Glenview home was recently renovated to open up the majority of the first-floor areas. Architect and homebuilder/remodeler Michael Menn of Northbrook worked closely with his client to create a warm and functional space where family and guests would feel comfortable to gather and enjoy good conversation.

This is the one special room in the home where the homeowner looks forward to reading a book or the Sunday newspaper.

The objective for the fireplace was a simple and tasteful update. The fireplace opening measures a generous 42 inches wide and 30 inches tall and serves as an anchor for the room. The surround and hearth are smooth stone marble slabs that enhance the natural wood flooring.

To give contrast to the surround, Menn added a traditional wood mantel painted white to match the trim and doors throughout the house.

No matter a home's age, size or style, a wood-burning fireplace provides a multitude of benefits for the homeowner. Those benefits include adding significant resale value to the home; a natural source of heat should the furnace or electricity fail; the option to cook food or heat liquids (using appropriate pie irons, Dutch ovens, roasting forks, corn poppers and coffee pots made from heat resistant metals or cast iron); the ability to lower heating costs in the cold weather months; and providing a romantic setting for those special evenings.

Who wouldn't want to cuddle up in front of a warm, cozy fire on a cold winter night?

• David Lewis is a publicist and features writer based in Morton Grove.

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