Restoring an Arts and Crafts Fireplace Hearth

Scott Gibson, Contributing Editor

We recently purchased a 94-year-old Arts and Crafts style home in Raleigh, North Carolina. Two of the fireplaces have the original tile on the face of the fireplace, but the tile on the hearth was replaced with horribly ugly 12 by 12 tile. We would like to change the tile on the floor but we don't know what material to use. We would never be able to find a 2 by 6 tile to match exactly so we were thinking of replacing it with a whole piece of slate or some such material. Can you recommend something?

The Arts and Crafts era of the late 19th and early 20th century was as much a social movement as it was a new direction for art and design, an effort to restore a more humanistic sensibility to an industrial era. It's no surprise that careful detailing in the tile and woodwork of a fireplace and hearth often was a focal point in period houses.

It's too bad someone ripped out the period tile that was no doubt original to your house and replaced it with something cheesy. They may have had the best of intentions. And look on the bright side, you still have the original fireplace surrounds to work with.

Getting this detail right is worth the effort, and it may not be as difficult or as costly as you think. For advice, I called Michelle Nelson, a designer at The Craftsman Home in Berkeley, California, a shop that specializes in Arts and Crafts furnishings and design.

If you want your fireplace and hearth to look authenticate, don't replace the hearth tile with stone. The surround and hearth were meant to have a cohesive look, in Michelle's words "reading as a unit." Even though a slab of soapstone or granite would have its own appeal, it would look out of place in some basic way.

Better to look into the possibility of replacing the ugly tile with a compatible, modern reproduction. Fireplace and hearth tile were typically laid out on a 6-inch or 8-inch grid. If the field tile on your fireplace measures 2 by 6 it suggests the original hearth tiles in your house would have been 6 by 6, Michelle says. That's a starting point.

Tile artisans have blossomed in recent years, and you should have plenty to choose from. The Tile Heritage Foundation (www.tileheritage.org) or The Arts & Crafts Society (www.arts-crafts.com) may be able to connect you with an artisan or tile company that can produce something for your hearth.

Prices will cover quite a range, starting at roughly $15 to $18 per square foot for extruded, hand-glazed tile from Meredith Art Tile, for example, to more than $100 per square foot for a very high-end tile, such as those made by Motawi.

Even if the hearth measured a generous 6 feet wide and 18 inches deep, you might be able to land the tile for $150 or less -- by no means a budget buster. Breaking up those ugly 12 by 12s and clearing the way for new tile would be a pleasure. You should be able to set the new tile yourselves
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If you want to bring your house back to its former glory, hold the idea of a stone hearth in reserve and explore your tile options first.

About the Author
An accomplished woodworker and carpenter, Scott Gibson is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, and a former editor at Today's Homeowner and Fine Homebuilding magazines. He also is former managing editor of the Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper in Maine.


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