We've come full circle -- from a nation that craved central heating to one that has come to take it for granted to a people searching for ways to diminish the high cost of central heating by returning to the old wood stove and other such non-central heating devices.

The hearth, the center of the Colonial American house, the source of cooked food and heat, was replaced by more efficacious central heat and cooking stoves. And while the fireplace has remained an important element in many homes, its function has become primarily decorative. It's even become the focal point of the living room.

For designer Keith Babcock, the fireplace became the cue for the design of an entire living room in a Bethesda home. Picking up on the curving lines of the antique Steinway, Babcock did away with a traditional mantel and circled the fireplace with a mirror. The room boasts round planters, round tables, round lamps, even round bases on the large chairs by Warren Platner.

When Margaret and Wilson Scott first saw their "efficiency" apartment in Northwest Washington, they fell in love with it. The fireplace does not merely provide cues for decorating: it defines the apartment, even though the room is 30 feet wide and has a ceiling 22 feet high at its peak. Two orchestra balconies look down on the room and the fireplace.

What gives the fireplace its dramatic effect is the two-story-high tile mural arching above it. Dating from the early part of the century, the mural has a classic arts-and-crafts-movement motif. The theme is of the sea -- a merman holding up a "merbaby" while a mermaid looks on. The cement mantle is held up by two sea lions and clamshells decorate the fireplace itself. Even the tiles in the hearthstone area have a carved sea motif. A more romantic, grand fireplace in a private home would be hard to find.

For cabinetmaker Peter Kramer, the fireplace not only has romance, it serves as the focal point of his country kitchen and the main source of heat for the tiny house he and his wife share in historic Washington, Va. Kramer restored a century-old "summer kitchen" and another out-building to create the three-room house.

The masonry fireplace in the kitchen holds a rich blazing fire, but, Kramer himself points out, "A fireplace is a pretty inefficient way to heat any place -- most of the heat escapes up the chimney." To overcome this problem without destroying the beauty of the old fireplace, he developed a new kind of wood stove, one so unusual that he is now seeking a patent for it. He calls it a "mantel stove." It's a simple wood box with a baffled smoke chamber mounted on the fireplace at mantle height. The 1/4" steel plate box resembles a heavy mailbox with a lip to catch ashes. Small pieces of wood are placed in the stove, whose flue extends from the rear of the stove into the chimney. "We let the fire in the fireplace die down and close up the damper at night," reports Kramer, "and then, we start up the wood stove and it keeps the heat in the room all night."

The staying power and the amount of heat produced by any wood stove quickly become the two most important features to anyone who owns one. For that reason, a stove with a long history in central Europe, the ceramic tile stove --- or Kachelofen -- has begun to make inroads in the American market. Free-standing decorative ceramic wood stoves can be seen all over Europe and Scandinavia, where central heating is still not so common.

For those who worry about little people's hands being burned by cast iron stoves that heat up to very high temperatures, the tile stove provides an alternative. Here's how it works: A tiled exterior obscures an iron firebox and firebricks. More elaborate units built into the walls have a labyrinth of metal smoke channels which zigzag back and forth along the inside of the tiles spreading the heat along the tile walls. Little heat is lost to the outside. The heated tiles can be touched without fear of being burned, yet the warmth generated radiates over a large area and holds the heat.

A few years ago, Clifton, Va., homebuilder Manfred Goetz decided to start importing tiles stoves from his native Germany. The Kachelofen are assembled on site from tiles made abroad. And despite their high prices ($800 for a small free-standing unit to $6,000 for a built-in version), Goetz claims he can't import enough to meet the demand. He sells them to people like Shirley and William McDonald, who have a large ceramic-tiled unit which heats most of their 5,000 square foot home. Last year, the McDonalds claim they only spent $300 on oil for their back-up heating system. Wood did the rest (about 2-l/2 or 3 cords worth).

Edmund Lazar, a native of Hungary, decided to install a tile stove in the ground floor of his Bethesda split-level not so much for the promised heat efficiency as much as from a sense of nostalgia. "I think the purchase was 80 percent emotion and 20 percent common sense," says Lazar, a systems analyst for the Department of Commerce. "I grew up with one of these stoves," says Lazar, who while working at the National Bureau of Standards organized an energy club of fellow employees to share information that would help them be more energy-efficient homeowners. And in spite of the high cost of installation (about $4,000), Lazar finds that his family uses the ground floor much more than ever before.

In the midst of all this concern abut energy, when consumers are being assaulted with information about which woods burn fastest and best, what kinds of units are easiest to install, and which burn most efficiently, it's nice to know that you can have a stove or a fireplace that looks good, too.