The Fireplace That Changed Everything

By: Shannon Dauphin Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old House History

When we purchased our new place, we were thrilled to move into the home of our dreams, tucked away in the woods, surrounded by hundreds of acres of untamed land. There are skylights that let the sun fill the space, and plenty of hardwood and cool slate under our feet. There are tall, beautiful windows, unadorned with curtains of any kind, that give the house an airy feel. There is a kitchen that still makes me swoon, and a workshop that makes us quite happy indeed.

But when we first walked through the house and contemplated making an offer, I had the nagging feeling that something wasn't right. By the time we reached the master bedroom, I realized what it was.

I'm accustomed to old houses. I love everything about them, from the creaking floors to the tiny (or non-existent) closets to the classic windows. I like how an old house speaks to me and shows me bits of history tucked away in the walls and under the floors and in the attic. I love a house with character.

This house? It's only about 50 years old.

Of course some would say that's "ancient," but to me it is a modern young lady, a spring chicken compared to the homes I have always gravitated toward. Though I loved everything about the house, the fact that it was so "new" left me feeling as though I had lost something important.

That all changed with a fireplace and a big, beautiful chimney.

Seen through the smoke of history

"There used to be a cabin here on the property," the realtor said. "That fireplace is all that's left."

We looked up at the chimney. The two-story beauty was made of stone harvested from the fields around the house. The fireplace was made of the same stone, but it was obviously much more worn than the chimney. It had been there for a while.

"How old is it?" I asked.

She flipped through some papers. "It dates back to 1820," she said.

Those words were like a tingle of electricity, lighting me up from the inside out. I slowly turned and looked at the land around me. A home had stood there, almost 200 years ago. Now that I knew that, I could see other things.

There was a concrete slab -- a mystery to everyone -- we now suspected was the cap of an old cistern. Sure enough, it was. The careful placement of rocks and old wood in the backyard, what looked like a little Stonehenge in the middle of nowhere, suddenly made sense. It was part of an ancient foundation.

Standing there in the shadow of that modern house, I knew that over the years we would find many more signs of that old cabin. I wondered what life was like for those who had built that cabin as their refuge from the world. Did they gather around the fireplace in the depths of a harsh Pennsylvania winter? Did they leave the windows unadorned in the summer, so they could look out at the beauty all around them?

What were their joys? What were their challenges? Who were they?

Suddenly, the house didn't feel modern at all. It felt like something unique, a blend of the old and the new. It felt like a place where we belonged.

Someone once made their home there. Now we can't wait to do the same.