Wednesday, April 15, 2009

There's Nothing Like The Sound Of Jackhammers In The Morning!

It rained yesterday in New Castle so the masons moved inside to work on the kitchen fireplace. The plan was to remove the "new" masonry to get back to the fireplace's original size and configuration. They warned me it might get noisy since they would be using a small jackhammer (my office is directly above the kitchen fireplace!) I closed the door and, being Irish, cranked up Radiocelt.

Here's what the fireplace looked like before work began yesterday:

At some point in the fireplace's history the opening of the fireplace was reduced in size. About 1.5 feet of masonry was added to the inside of the left leg and about 6 inches to the right. Additional masonry was added to the back wall of the fireplace, and more masonry was added behind and above the lintel. Our primary question about this added masonry was why was it added? Was it a structural issue? Did the fireplace smoke too much? Another question - what kind of condition was the lintel in?

A couple of other questions too:
  • Is the crane original to the fireplace? We believe it was placed in its current location in the early 20th century because it impractically swings in front of the bake oven opening. We hoped to find original pintles in place that would match our existing crane, and confirm or deny its originality to the house.
  • Is the bake oven original? We believed that the opening was indeed original though the oven outside appeared to be a 20th century reconstruction - it is severely undersized.
I resisted going downstairs until lunch and the masons informed me that the original masonry looked remarkably well-preserved. I was expecting our architect and lead mason to arrive around 1 pm so I continued to exercise restraint and didn't look under the plastic yet. I wanted to wait for the great unveiling later!

Once everyone arrived I got my first look at the recently uncovered fireplace:

It was very exciting to see the original fireplace with several features that we did not know about:
  • A flue opening directly above the bake oven opening revealed that the original bake oven was a "squirrel tail" design. In this design smoke from inside the oven exited through an opening at the rear of the dome, traveled through a flue that ran along the exterior (top) of the dome (like a squirrel with its tail pulled up over its back) and re-entered the fireplace smoke chamber above the oven door to vent into the smoke chamber then up the chimney (below).
  • The inside corners on each leg of the fireplace were rounded and the interior of the fireplace was plastered. A large portion of the original plaster remains solidly in place (below).
  • No pintles were discovered in the original masonry. There are no other indications of a wall-mounted crane ever being used in the original configuration. There are two iron rods running front to back inside the smoke chamber (below). Did these suspend a lug pole (an iron rod or timber that ran parallel to the lintel, spanning the cooking space below)? Pots could be suspended on trammels hung from this lug pole during cooking. Or was a floor standing crane used and these iron rods are actually tie rods to stabilize the chimney?
  • A fragment of a hearth paver that appears to be square and thinner than the brick pavers that were put in place when the fireplace was narrowed (The triangular fragment is just below the yellow cord in the photo below). Other fireplaces in the house use 6" by 6" pavers for the hearth.
  • The lower section of the rear wall in the firebox shows no sign of soot.
Good news too...the lintel appears to be in very good condition and doesn't show any obvious structural deficiency that would have prompted the addition of masonry below it. Perhaps the fireplace opening was reduced to alleviate an issue with the fireplace smoking (more on that in a sec...)

All of this poses more questions for us to consider: Should we rebuild the exterior portion of the bake oven to its original squirrel tail configuration? Can we find the oven's foundation through archaeological investigation? Should we lay the restored hearth with 6" by 6" pavers based on the fragment we found and the other fireplaces in the house? Where will we get them - can we have them made using local clay? Where was the clay dug in the 18th century? Is the flue correctly sized for the fireplace opening?

If the fireplace was reduced in size to solve a smoking problem are we going to have a smoking problem if the fireplace is ever used in the future? How do we solve that? If we enlarge the flue then the chimney's exterior appearance will be too big. Is there a way to improve the draft using a fan at the top of the chimney? How well does that work - it is visible from outside or audible inside?

Of course, as we are proceeding we are removing the work of previous owners and restorers of the building which reflect the building's history and evolution. We already came to the philosophical conclusion to restore the fireplace to its original appearance. How far does that philosophy carry into the rest of the room? Or the rest of the house?

And the questions go on and on. Some of these questions will be resolved in the short term by our project budget, but many have far reaching implications for the interpretation of the house as a museum. As we wrestle with these and other questions, I'll keep you posted on what we decide to do and why.

I've always said that every day is an adventure when you work at a historic site and today's adventure did not disappoint!


  1. Go for it Mike, a 1738 hearth and oven are too rare not to be restored and used! Cate Crown from the Savory Fare2 list.

  2. What fun! Thanks for posting this blog so we can vicariously share in the discoveries you are making. How far up the smoke chamber is the iron bar? I've seen a c. 1801 traveler's drawing of an inn's kitchen he visited which shows trammels hanging down into a cooking fireplace, with no visible lug pole. Wondering if that bar might have been it.


    Jane Oakes
    Savory Fare 2 List

  3. Thanks for letting us all vicariously share in the fun you're having! How far up into the smoke chamber is the iron bar you showed? I've seen images of lug poles inserted well up into the smoke chamber so that only the trammels showed.


    Jane Oakes
    Savory Fare 2 List

  4. Thanks for the comments Jane & Cate!

    Jane, the iron bars are 85" (7'1") above the hearth, and 27" (2'3") above the bottom of the lintel. So they are well into the smoke chamber and, like your 1801 traveler observed, the lug pole would not be visible from outside the fireplace.



  5. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.

    Smoking Oven