Before it was dismantled, the fireplace in O’Kane’s Blue Parlor got a lot of attention. It is a simple-looking surround, with a single large panel above and an applied mantle, but it’s a good representation of the vernacular style from its era. Aside from a little bit of backband added in a Greek Revival-era renovation, the surround was intact, and allowed a visitor to feel transported in time. While I found the piece pleasing aesthetically, I didn’t fully appreciate the workmanship until it was dismantled, revealing another chapter in the story of this building.
After Scott removed the adjacent paneling, and had cut or pulled the wrought nails attaching it to the wooden lintels, we realized that removing the surround wouldn’t be so easy. The stiles on either side of the panel and fireplace opening extended past the first layer of brick, but we could never have guessed just how deeply. After removing a piece of subfloor and digging into crumbled clay mortar, we found that the stiles extended below the surface of the subfloor by 8 inches. Eight Inches!
We haven’t found anything like this elsewhere in the building, and, based on the adjacent wall paneling, which went no deeper than the first layer of flooring, there is no reason to think that the original floor was eight inches lower. My theory is this: while the frame was being fit, joiners were cutting this and the other frame & panel walls (joinery shots, below). As soon as the frame was erected and sheathed, joiners installed this surround first so that this hearth could warm and feed the carpenters as they finished the rest of the house.
After digging out the stiles, we carefully laid the surround onto a specialized piece of preservation equipment called a Trash Can, and then we discovered something AWESOME.
A Pulvinated Panel! I have a thing for pulvinated, or “breasted” panels (would an analyst draw some connection between my interest and being a woman in a male-dominated field?) I have loved them ever since I first encountered them at Hancock Shaker Village on a NBSS class trip. At Hancock, the technique is seen on the front of the panel, and elsewhere, it seems to refer largely to friezes. I just think it is The Number One Most Elegant Way to field a panel, and ought to be used more often, and visibly. It is appealing to me how present the crafts-person is in this method of shaping a panel. The curve is shaped by his eye and hand, rather than a combination square. To me, the process is nearer to the construction of a chair than that of the austere wall panel.
Given that the back of the panel we found was mostly rough, and totally invisible, the gently curved backside was not really where this crafts-person showed his stuff. That was in the triple stub tenon we found in the wide bottom rail, and the double tenon up top. The joinery involved is partly what leads us to believe that the surround may have been made ahead of time, off-site.
To see more photos of our process click on the slideshow, below