Columns of Splendor

By Adrian Higgins
Sunday, March 4, 2007

SCAN THE REAL ESTATE ADS, and amid the coded references to Sunny & Large 2 BRs, En Suite Ba w/marble flrs, and Gourmet Kts, you will find a recurring two-letter abbreviation: fp. The fireplace.

No digital-age condo, townhouse or detached house needs a fireplace. Why would we burn hunks of dried tree trunks in our computer-driven homes, with their heat pumps and furnaces and hot-water tubing in the floors? We don't need fireplaces, and, yet, we crave them. With just one open fire, a house becomes something more than a shelter; it becomes a place of comfort and safety. Home and hearth.

Where there are fireplaces, there are chimneys, an exterior detail informed by hundreds of years of architectural history. In Tudor and Jacobean England, chimneys were works of art, barley twist columns harvested from brick and the ingenuity of the mason. In the classical period, chimneys became more staid and elegant, but erupted again into full-blown Gothic glory in the 19th century. The chimney, arguably, reached its symbolic high point in the Arts and Crafts movement, whose practitioners sought to venerate the home, especially the straightforward middle-class home, as a bastion of the good domestic life, a life decorated by honest beauty and explicit craftsmanship.

If the hearth was the inward expression of this idyll, the chimney became the outward manifestation. But it is more than that, this emphatic column against the dominant horizontality of the structure. In the catalogue of an exhibition, "The Arts and Crafts Movement in California," held at the Renwick Gallery in 1993, there is an exquisite residence, the Marston House, designed by William Hebbard and Irving Gill. It rises first in brick, then stucco and is capped with a tiled roof. But it is the solid, vertical line of the exterior brick chimney that holds it all together. If you were to remove the chimney, the house would resemble a milking shed. Where is this mansion? In San Diego, not exactly a town that needs fireplaces and chimneys.

In Washington, at least, we can be less sheepish about celebrating our chimneys. Consider the array here. Some are grand, such as the tall, strutting pair of yellow brick chimneys in Bethesda, diamond-shaped in plan and redolent of Shakespeare's age. In the LeDroit Park section of the District, there is a perfect Victorian cottage, with chimney and chimney pots rising from a steeply pitched slate roof. It reminds me of the small-town railway stations of my English youth, where a coal fire glowed in the waiting room, and, on the platform outside, the dank air was sweetened by sulfur smoke.

At a contemporary house in Glen Echo, a concrete chimney gives way to a shiny, metal flue, and the rod goes clean through the roof. The house is body-pierced. Look at me, if you dare.

On Capitol Hill, a humble chimney is seen at eye level from within rooms of the house. The stack is worn, and its cream and red texture forms a painterly subject, rising as it does from a blue tin roof. In the woods of Ashburn, a ruined chimney reveals both inner hearth and outer column, all that is left of a rustic home. What happy times were spent around that fireplace, now naked and cold, and what happened that it should all be lost?

In Hollin Hills, the masterful enclave of Modernism in Fairfax County, the architects gave these homes prominent brick chimneys, fat and squat and rising barely above the gently sloped roofs. Did they have Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian homes in mind? In describing the Usonian house, the late Brendan Gill said the client might expect "to have bedrooms as small and snug as ships' cabins; and to have a large living room, with a fireplace that announced itself unmistakably as the heart of the house."

In our current age of architectural excess, you can go to Potomac and see a forest of brash, sallow chimneys crowning the pseudo chateaux. I prefer the humble chimneys of the rowhouses built in Washington a century ago. Look closely at one image of a Capitol Hill rowhouse, and you can see a TV satellite dish sandwiched by these earnest stacks. Wood smoke rising, digital data falling. The global village, in all its comic horror, is funneled into the parlor. Turn it off, friend. Get thee to the fireplace, where you can watch the leaping flames and listen to the crackle of the blaze.

Adrian Higgins writes about gardening for The Post. He can be reached at

MORE | PHOTO GALLERY: Local Chimneys

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