Over the past year, ARCH has been working hard to finish the interior restoration of the Alexander T. Rankin House (c. 1841), where our offices are located. This work has included renovations of the kitchen and downstairs bathroom and new paint in all of the rooms downstairs. With all of these big jobs done, Michael, ARCH Executive Director, and Lori, former Program Specialist, decided it was finally time to see what was behind the plaster and bricks that filled in the opening of our historic fireplace.
The chimney to this fireplace was capped off some time ago and all of the old bricks and debris fell into the now useless fireplace. A wall of bricks and plaster closed off the fireplace opening. Not knowing what to expect, Mike, Lori, our intern Matt and Lori’s son Kaiden started demolition on the fireplace. Much to our surprise, behind all the plaster, bricks, dust and ashes were three decorative cast iron panels.
After removing all the debris we brushed off the cast iron with a broom and wire brush to get a better look. Over time, the panels had begun to rust and deteriorate, especially along the bottom edges. In order to stop the progression of the rust damage and to give the fireplace a more finished look, we sprayed the panels with multiple coats of a rust-reversing black matte paint.
Our fireplace is lined with three metal panels with framed images surrounded by a stamped pattern. The side panels depict what look like European explorers planting their flags and the large center panel shows a man and a woman on horseback surrounded by men and dogs walking.
After some research online, we’ve discovered our metal panels are called a fireback. Firebacks have been used for centuries to make wood fires more efficient. The cast iron absorbs the heat from the fire and radiates it back into the room. A fire burning in a fireplace without a fireback loses much of the energy produced through the floor, rear wall and chimney. Not only practical, firebacks were also a decorative feature in many homes. Firebacks were used as early as the 16th century in England and Europe and were adorned with a variety of themes ranging from religious and mythological symbolism, patriotic or regal insignia, historical scenes or nature. As with architecture, popular styles changed over time and could be made of one or multiple panels.
In the United States, firebacks dating from as early as the 17th century have been discovered. In 18th century America, firebacks often depicted allegorical subjects or coats of arms; similar to what was popular in the early colonists’ homelands before they immigrated. While firebacks were likely common in the early decades of our country, there are relatively few surviving today. Historians theorize the small number of surviving firebacks in America can be attributed to the growing popularity of stoves and fireplace inserts by the late 19th century as well as scrap metal drives during the world wars. There is more information on firebacks online, including this example on display at the Getty Museum in California and this in-depth history of firebacks from an antique dealer specializing in fireplaces.
If you’re in the area, stop in the office and take a closer look at our fireback and let us know what you think!