Where Did All the Fireplaces Go?


Tis the season for fireplace appreciation! But what if your fireplace and/or its art glass windows are missing, removed by a well-intentioned previous owner? You’re not alone!

While it seems crazy to us to remove such iconic elements, keep in mind that most things look outdated 20 years on. (What will those Gen Z-ers make of our open floor plans, industrial lighting, and barn doors? I digress.)

Lucky homeowners have discovered “hidden” windows drywalled over by previous owners. Others have re-installed lost fireplaces (View more photos of the Murphy's and Adler's award-winning window uncovering projects, or the Wiechert's award-winning fireplace rebuild project.)

“Sound but outdated.” Sound familiar?

So, when did this rip-out-your-fireplace-and-art-glass-windows trend start? A look through the newspaper archives gives us a clue.

The feeling of having a “sound, but outdated” bungalow is nothing new. A 1951 Chicago Tribune article outlines a DIY remodeling campaign in a 23-year-old Chicago bungalow at 6042 W. School St. (Photo credit: Chicago Tribune, 1951)

John Retzler, a CTA worker, started renovating his family’s “sound but outdated” bungalow in 1947, with the goal of finishing a room a year. (It was built in 1928, mind you.) In the living room, he replaced an artificial fireplace with streamlined birch storage cabinets, leaving the original bookcases intact, and covered over the two flaking windows with an enormous mirror. The Retzlers also replaced the three central double-hung windows with a single picture window in the bay window, completing the look with a metal awning. The 1951 article also highlighted the conversion of a pantry to a breakfast nook in the kitchen, the installation of glass block windows in the dining room (yes, you read that right) and custom under-bed storage created for the master bedroom.

The Retzler renovation included swapping in a large picture window and metal awning where three double-hung windows once were. Dramatic curtains cover the flaking bay windows. (Photo credit: Chicago Tribune, 1951)

Described as “an art teacher who takes homework literally” Chicago bungalow owner Jack Landis was featured in a 1949 Chicago Tribune story about his extensive home renovations at 2934 N Kilbourn. (Photo credit: Chicago Tribune, 1949)

Another Chicago Tribune story, this one from 1949, highlights the modernization of a Wright Junior College (now Wilbur Wright College) art teacher’s 1926 bungalow in the Belmont Gardens neighborhood. Jack Landis remodeled his family’s living room in order to replace the “old fashioned” stained-glass windows and mantle with a large bookcase and, what else, a mirror. He also covered the original rectangular door openings in the living and dining rooms with an arabesque arch, another mid-20th century trend! The article also mentions a recent kitchen refresh involving aluminum tile (!?), bedroom painting schemes of “stripes and plaid,” a mother-in-law-minded attic remodel and the conversion of a back porch into a nursery.

A decorating column from 1948 encourages homeowners to embrace “the modern idea” and cover up their outdated fireplace windows. (Photo credit: The Pantagraph, 1948)

A decorating column from 1948 offers the same advice, to take a “bad fireplace wall…from way-back-when style to modern.” This one advises the homeowner to keep the old fireplace, but surround it with a new full-wall bookcase, covering the windows.

How can you extrapolate when this happened in your home? There’s a good chance that anytime your home switched hands, a few renovations were made. Same with major life events, like the birth of a child or the arrival of an ageing in-law. And keep in mind that things look horribly, hopelessly dated at the 20 year mark. So do the math.

Are you hoping to bring back the ghosts of elements past? Start at a neighbor’s house for inspiration. Bungalow neighborhoods were built en masse and it’s likely your fireplace and windows were very much like your neighbors. Happy renovating!

Got a question about your house? Email eschmidt@chicagobungalow.org or join the member FB group to crowd source your answer from bungalow owners just like you.

Bibliography:

Douglas, Anne. “Five Year Plan a Big Success in Remodeling.” Chicago Tribune, 8 April 1951, p. 95.

Waterbury, Sally. “Art Teacher Makes Big Job of Homework.” Chicago Tribune, 24 April 1949, p. 25.

Hillyer, Elizabeth. “Make Old Fireplace Modern.” The Pantagraph. 20 April 1948, p. 10.

#driehausawards #historicpreservation #history #architecture #restoration #fireplace #windows

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