history behind walls
we’ve been in the same apartment in the LES for over 17 years. but it wasn’t until 1996, after over 8 years there, that we discovered the fireplace.
reading The Alienist at the time (a GREAT book by Caleb Carr about a series of child murders in the late 1800′s, primarily set in the Lower East Side), and immersed in a part where Carr vividly describes tenement life, we realized “all the apartments had fireplaces back then.” noting the section in the center of our wall that jutted out slightly – it hit us!… there’s something behind there!!! we quickly started knocking about the wall … knock, knock, knock, THUNK! there was a hollow spot! grabbed a hammer, and a minute later we’d bashed a baseball size hole in the wall. a “whoosh” of musky, ancient air filled the room. got the flashlight out and we could see it was a really old and really dirty fireplace (but with great potential.) next day we rented a reciprocating saw from Ace Hardware and started cutting down the wall. the fireplace was filthy. we spent days wiping it down, and weeks repointing the bricks (the cement made today is much brighter and didn’t match so we hand mixed in some of the old mortar we’d scraped off to maintain the old look.) later we finished off the edges with sheetrock.
and today we have a beautiful fireplace that really speaks to the history of our apartment and the LES. it’s very tall, the hearth area is almost 4 feet high. which fits the LES tenement scene painted by the Alienist. these fireplaces provided warmth but just as important, they were used to cook in. there’s also a small square hole towards the top that served as a flue. the interior still has remains of a blue ceramic that covered the surface. and our favorite part is the massive hand cut granite hearthstone that supports the bricks above the opening.
it seems it was fashionable back in the 30-40′s to cover these old fireplaces when they became obsolete (due new fangled heating and cooking methods coming on the scene.) but it’s time they were brought back in the open! our fireplace is beautiful and adds a touch of magic to the apartment, with it’s warm look and interesting history. we’ve spent many hours wondering what life was like at the turn of the century and it’s given us a wonderful sense of the history we live in. so if you live in an old building in NYC and have strange architectural angles, grab a hammer and see what’s behind it! (just a little warning, start with a small hole, our downstairs neighbor followed our idea and his fireplace was a cracked and smashed up mess.)