During the holidays the fireplace takes on an added importance in our lives. It's so much a part of Christmas legend and lore: hanging the stockings by the chimney with care, Santa's entryway of choice, chestnuts roasting by an open fire, the medieval yule log.
"The fireplace is the focal point for the whole holiday celebration," says local architect Steven Hoffman Shapiro, who feels that's one reason many of his clients insist on having a fireplace in their homes.
We no longer need fireplaces for warmth; in fact, a blazing fire can suck the heat from a centrally heated room. But they provide an important emotional warmth, especially this time of year. Sit back, relax, dream a little, while you watch the flames flicker in the hearth.
In an era when the home is the center of many people's lives once again, the fireplace has become a symbol of comfort and more peaceful times. Builders and architects say the fireplace is one of the features most requested by new-home buyers, right up there with home offices and more storage space. A new interest in period features has also helped fuel the reawakened desire for a fireplace.
There's something very romantic about firelight, so architects are putting fireplaces in bedrooms and bathrooms as well as formal living rooms and family rooms. People are even asking for fireplaces in the kitchen, a room that's the center of many families' lives.
Some contemporary fireplaces have yet another function. Free-standing ones used as room dividers are very much in vogue right now. They act as a wall in today's smaller houses without cutting off all space and light.
The styles of mantels and surrounds -- Colonial, French rococo, neoclassical, contemporary -- are as varied as the styles of houses. That's important to remember, points out designer Elaine Logan of Logan Grant Inc.
"A fireplace is part of the architecture of the house, not part of the furniture," she warns. To her regret, the previous owners of her home ripped out the mantel "and put one in to go with their Chippendale furniture." As far as she can determine, the original fireplace had a brick surround with a mantel in the turn-of-the-century style of the house. The brick was covered up and new molding applied. "It's neat and trim," she says, "and not very interesting."
That doesn't, however, mean you have to adhere slavishly to the architectural style of your house. Period fireplace style is one of .. the most important clues for architectural historians in dating an older house quite precisely, but nowadays anything goes as long as it complements the overall architecture of the room.
A fireplace is the dominant point of interest almost anywhere. The one exception is the family room. Too often it fights with the television to be the focal point (and usually ends up being subordinate).
As the focal point of a living room, the fireplace dictates interior design. Seating is grouped around it; its mantel is the place to display treasures and mementos. Objects on a mantel can be changed easily to give the whole room a fresh look.
If you have the money, designer Jay Jenkins of Alexander Baer suggests buying an antique, carved, marble mantel for your fireplace ($3,000 on up). But this isn't your only option. For a couple of hundred dollars you can put beautiful molding around the firebox, or you could have the mantel faux-finished to look like antique marble.
Invest in a handsome pair of antique brass andirons, "which can add scale and depth," says Mr. Jenkins. Movable fire screens are another way to add decorative interest to the area. "Or you could simply paint the mantel a crisp white, and paint the wall behind in a beautiful color."
While the fireplace is likely to be the dominant point of interest in a room, Randy Davis-Armann of Armann Architects has found that her clients often want to integrate it into its room. "A brick front and a mantel may not fit in," she explains. She might extend the mantel, add new trim or put on a whole new front.
Andrea Loran of Design Projects Ltd., describes an asymmetrical fireplace -- one not centered on its 20-foot wall -- that she surrounded with pickled book shelves and cabinets, so that the fireplace became an extension of the wall. "It makes the room twice as large," she says.
While having a fireplace is a fundamentally symbolic gesture that has little to do with heating, it can make a huge difference in how you feel about your house. Central to Steven Shapiro's %o renovation of a house on the Magothy River was the fireplace, which had been ignored for the past 15 years. He believes that his clients use what was a summer cottage all year round now primarily because of that fireplace.
"They weren't really aware of its presence," he says, "but it was a lovely little rustic stone fireplace." The architect changed everything on the first floor but the fireplace itself, which he made the centerpiece of his renovation.
"The room is a lot warmer now," Mr. Shapiro says. And he's not talking about the heat the fireplace generates.
The future in the flames
Folklore has it that you can read the future in the flames of the fire. Here's how to interpret the signs, according to the new book "The Fireplace," by Elizabeth Wilhide (Little, Brown, $40).
* If the flames are pale-colored, expect rain.
* If the fire is noisy, expect a storm.
* If the fire burns fiercely, there will be a frost.
* If the fire falls over in the direction of somebody, there will be anger.
* If the fire retreats to a corner, there will be separation.
* If sooty smoke hangs above the grate, a stranger will arrive.
* Round or purse-shaped cinders that jump from the fire mean money.
* Oval or cradle-shaped cinders that jump from the fire mean birth.
* Rectangular or coffin-shaped cinders that jump from the fire mean death.