One of the renovation challenges we’re trying to figure out at the moment is how we should handle the fireplaces at the St. Martin house. There are currently two existing fireplaces with mantels — one is on the ground floor in the living room (pictured above), and one is on the second floor (in a room the previous owner used as a dining room). Neither of them are working fireplaces. Originally they worked, but there was a renovation — maybe in the 1970s? — when they became decorative only.

As we’ve pulled up flooring and explored a bit more, we’ve also found 3 other stone hearths from earlier fireplaces (one of them we actually knew about when we bought the house, the other two are newer discoveries). It makes sense. The house dates to the 1700s, and back then, essentially every room would have needed a fireplace as a heat source (or a cooking source in the case of the kitchen).

I’m personally not a fan of keeping fireplaces around that were once useable and are now decorative. I want a functioning fireplace or none-at-all. We have three previously-functioning fireplaces in the house we’re renting right now, and though I appreciate them as architectural accents, it feels silly to have to orient a whole room around a large, non-functioning decoration/piece of furniture.

The house we used to rent in France, La Cressonniere, had two big fireplaces, and we would make fires pretty much daily through the cold winter months. Using wood fires as a major heat source is a lot of work. Keeping wood ordered and delivered, stacking it and storing it, bringing it in each day, prepping kindling, lighting fires, cleaning out the ash… It’s a commitment for sure.

When we moved to the Treehouse in Oakland, there was also a functioning fireplace — though we never actually made a fire in it. Hah! Partly due to concerns about air quality, and partly because it just doesn’t get that cold in Oakland. But I was fine to treat the fireplace as decorative, because I knew it was functional and that we could build a fire if we wanted or needed to.

The only other house we’ve lived in that had a fireplace was our rental in Colorado. It had a gas fireplace — you just pushed a button and voila! beautiful flames and a cozy living room. I was pretty snooty about the idea of a gas fireplace when we first moved in, and was sort of embarrassed about it — I thought it was somehow inauthentic, or pretend. But in reality, I loved how easy it was to use. It gets cold and snowy in Colorado and it was wonderful to have an instant fire whenever we wanted one (especially when I was pregnant and had a newborn).

These days, I’ve realized I really want a wood stove or wood fireplace in the country cottage — where we have plenty of space to store wood and make messes. But in town, I think I’d actually prefer gas fireplaces. And I think I’d get way more use out of them too. So for the renovation, I’ve been looking into gas fireplace options.

Much of what’s out there is really modern — and I’m not going for modern in the St. Martin house. But I found a source for gorgeous cast iron fireplaces and I’m kind of obsessed now. The company is based in England. (I can’t seem to find anything similar in France — but they ship to France, or we could just drive over and pick one up.)

They have a big selection, elegant designs, and each fireplace can be ordered to work with gas, or with solid fuel (there are even a few that can be ordered as electric fireplaces). Some come in matte black, others come in polished silver/black, and on most models, you can choose either (the photo below shows the same model in both matte and polished so you can see the difference). There are also several options that come with space for tile accents.

The two main sections of the website that we’re been looking at are the cast-iron fireplace inserts, and the fireplace + mantel combos. We’re not sure if we can save the existing mantels. If we can save them, we like the insert options. If we can’t save the mantels and need to remove them, then we like the combo options.

So now, we’re talking with local fireplace installers and finding out if they’re up for handling one of these cast iron options. We have a million questions:
– What do we need to do to the chimney to get the current fireplaces working again?
– Can the current fireplace openings be refit to work with a gas insert? Or should we stick with solid fuel options (like wood or pellets)?
– Can/should we add fireplaces back to the three bedrooms that used to have them?
– Can the existing marble mantels be repaired and saved? Or do they need to be replaced?
– If the mantels are salvageable, would the cast-iron inserts work with the existing mantel and opening?
– Should we forget about functional fireplaces and wall in the two current fireplaces (like they’ve been walled-in in other locations in the house)? So that we can use all four walls in each room and not have to work around a decorative fireplace?

A related question we’ve been talking about with heating experts:
– The main heat source for the house is radiators that are heated by city gas. Is it time to transition away from gas radiators, and gas/wood fireplaces, and go with electric radiators instead?

We’ve had two different fireplace installers and a contractor come to the house, and in each case they’ve been somewhat open to the cast-iron options, but also very hesitant. It’s a product they haven’t installed before, so they can’t predict what the process or problems will be. And all 3 pushed wood over gas — gas fireplaces are not as common here as in the U.S., so over course they are more comfortable installing what they are used to installing. If the cast-iron fireplaces were available from a French vendor, I’m sure that would help immensely — having to figure out specifications using a non-French website is tricky. But alas, they are not.

I’m very tempted to order one of the cast-iron options, just so the installers here can see it person. I think they’d have a much better sense of what the job will entail if they could actually see and touch the fireplace.

What’s your take? Do you have strong opinions on wood or gas fireplaces? Is there a functioning or non-functioning fireplace in your house right now? Do you like it? What’s your main heat source? Forced air from a furnace? Old school radiators? Electric baseboard heaters? Under-floor heating? Fireplace or wood-burning stove? (We’ve lived with ALL of those heating options in different houses over the years.)