DECOR : Old Mantels Give Fireplace New Appeal


The fireplace is a natural focal point in a room, and, with leaping flames or red embers, it’s downright mesmerizing.

But when the fire dies, the appeal often dies, too.

One way to inject new life into a room is by replacing the fireplace mantel and surround.

Two recent books from Little Brown are filled with ideas that can spark creativity: “The Fireplace: A Guide to Period Style” ($40) by Elizabeth Wilhide and “Fireplaces & Hearths” ($11.95, paperback) by Candace Ord Manroe.


Wilhide’s book is a history of fireplaces in the home and is filled with such tidbits as the superstition that if round cinders jump from the fire, money is coming.

Manroe’s book is filled with color photographs of fireplaces in modern American homes. Many of the mantels look as if they could have come from another time and place--and they might well have.

“People who recently moved into new houses are among the best customers for old mantels,” says Beau Kimball, manager of Salvage One Architectural Artifacts, a retail and mail-order business in Chicago that has about 1,000 old mantels in stock. “After they get settled, they replace the mantel that came with the house with something that has more character.”

Tract houses often have fireplaces of little architectural interest, he says. So owners head to a salvage specialist or antiques store in search of another. The mantel doesn’t have to match the house or its decor.


“Five years ago,” Kimball says, “clients were more slaves to the age of their house. Now they see that it’s OK to mix periods.”

Top candidates in old mantels for new fireplaces are from the turn of the century. These mantels, often in the Arts and Crafts or Colonial revival styles, tend to be more architectural than what Kimball calls the “carved to death” Victorian fireplace.

“There was a burst of high-quality building between about 1910 and 1929,” Kimball says. “The mantels from many of these houses are now becoming available through rehabilitation and demolition.”

For those who prefer an Old World look, Marshall Galleries Mantels of Los Angeles sells both originals and reproductions. Owner Mark Marshall says that faux antiques include cast stone that either duplicates the texture and color of European antique limestone mantels or simulates unpolished marble.


Changing a mantel is easiest if the surround is a perfect fit. If it’s a little larger, the difference can be made with a facing.

A fireproof metal, stone or tile fireplace surround does not need a facing if it fits, but a wood mantel and surround must be separated from the opening by fireproof materials.

In some areas of California, fireproof borders--such as stone, metal, tile or non-combustible Sheetrock--need to be up to 14 inches. Requirements vary by locale, so check with your local building department, Kimball says.

Fireplaces in most new houses are fitted with prefabricated units that come in a range of sizes. Earlier prefab units, however, are too large for most old mantels.


If your fireplace is too large for an antique surround, consider a reproduction. Salvage One, for example, has traditional American and Victorian styles in mahogany and pine from $800 to $1,500.

Prices for originals and antiques vary. An as-is wood mantel might range from $400 to $700 at Salvage One. Restored and ready to install, it might be $1,000. An 18th-Century or early 19th-Century marble fireplace averages $4,000, while 19th-Century cast-iron fireplaces are $600 to $3,000.

Cast limestone reproductions at Marshall Galleries range from $2,100 to $6,000, depending on intricacy and size. Antique mantels start around $6,000.

If you don’t have a fireplace but you want a mantel, consider making one into a headboard or console table, or using it for wall decor, garden accent or a fake fireplace.


“There is no fireplace in my dining room,” Kimball says, “but I have a mantel with a stone hearth and logs.”


Salvage One, 1524 S. Sangamon St., Chicago, IL 60608. Telephone (312) 733-0098.

Marshall Galleries, 8420 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90069. Telephone (213) 852-6633.