Keepers of the Flame

ELEMENTS-Jan/Feb 2008

By Joshua Bodwell

Photography Stacey Cramp

Fireplaces that warm with both crackling fires and blazing design


We have all heard the old cliché that “the fireplace is the heart of a home.” So it seems only appropriate to discover that when you Google “fireplace + heart” the very first listing that pops up is for a business right here in Maine: The Maine Wood Heat Company in Norridgewock.

One man who has been putting his heart into the construction of fireplaces since he arrived in Maine over 20 years ago is Oxford, England-born mason, Steve Dyer. Dyer and his brother and business partner, Paul, come from a long line of masons. Both men apprenticed for years as “hod carriers” (the English equivalent of a mason tender) before attending a masonry school to earn their certifications. Today, the Brothers Dyer work in brick and stone to build walls, chimneys, and veneer, but their “spe-shee-al-i-tee,” as Dyer says in his English accent, is custom fireplaces. “Fireplaces are really coming back now, with the gas prices being what they are,” he adds. One specific style of fireplace Dyer admires is known as the Rumford

Named in the late 1790s for its inventor, Count Rumford—not the town in central Maine—the fireplace design was revolutionary for its understanding of the physics of heat and smoke. A Massachusetts-born British loyalist, Rumford’s innovation was a shallow, straight-backed firebox with splayed side walls and aligned flue.

These features, says Dyer, help the Rumford give off more heat than the average fireplace. “That shallow box brings the flame closer to the room,” he says, “and it allows the fire to burn hotter.” Dyer says the higher flame temperature not only provides additional heat, but it helps keep chimneys clean of creosote. The simple but attractive design also makes the Rumford ideal as a central fireplace that can function as the hub of a home during Maine’s long winters.

fireplaces2.jpgIn addition to their utilitarian pur-pose, Jeff Gammelin of Freshwater Stone in Orland believes fireplaces should be seen as sculptural elements of a home. Gammelin, who opened Freshwater in 1976 with his wife Candy, says the company’s stonework designs are often based on natural forms. “Rivers, trees, clouds—those are the sorts of lines we’re trying to introduce into our work,” he says. David Rockefeller, Jr., a client of Gammelin’s, has called him “an artist whose medium is stone.”

Using Maine stone and granite he extracts from his own quarry, Gammelin’s fireplaces are colossal yet elemental. “We start with the mass of the stones,” he explains, “and we fit the shapes together in a way that allows the eye to follow the lines.” Gammelin compares the desired affect to that of a painting by French artist Paul Gaugin: “You have all these separate masses of beautiful color,” he says, “and your eye follows the joint lines of the stone to each mass like it’s following the different branches of a tree.” Gammelin says joint lines are crucial in good stone work. “The line should never be too even,” he says, “it should always have some life or movement in it.”

While many of Gammelin’s fireplaces are monumental and prominently placed, he stresses the importance of maintaining proper proportion and scale with the room—a sentiment that woodcarving artist John Bryan couldn’t agree with more.

Bryan’s intricately carved fireplace mantels are an entirely custom-made undertaking, and during the preliminary stages he always takes into account the architecture and interior design of the home in which his mantels will be placed. He weighs things like ceiling height, firebox size, and chimney proportions. “This is anything but a one-size-fits-all world!” Bryan says with a laugh.

fireplaces3.jpgAlthough Bryan has been personally plying his craft for three decades, custom-carved mantels are a time-honored tradition. “Historically,” he explains, “the genesis of a custom mantel typically involved some celebration of the commissioner’s life.”

During the early stages of a mantel commission, the North Yarmouth–based artist works to “extract stories” from his clients before he starts researching. An avid outdoorsman, Bryan often attracts clients with a taste for nature, so his research usually includes an intensive study of the local flora, fauna, and wildlife. Because his mantels are so specific and so personal, Bryan feels they become magnets for houseguests: “A great mantel can be like a great kitchen,” he says, “it’s hard to get people away from them.”

The ultimate success of a custom fireplace mantel, says Bryan, depends on both the artist and client remaining open and adaptable throughout the creative process. “People get stuck and sometimes don’t trust their imaginations,” Bryan says of the conceptualization phase. “My job is to open people’s minds to their own ideas.”

Whether your tastes sway toward brick, stone, wood, or some combination of the three, a well-planned and elegantly executed fireplace can truly become the heart of your home.

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