In the 19th century, were you to sit perched in the bell tower of St. Patrick’s Church, you could look out across the Crescent City and take in a full panorama of the local rooftops. And if it were twilight on a December evening, you would likely see plumes of smoke drifting from the many chimneys that punctuated the rooflines.
Those days, of course, are gone –– and not just because of the advent of gas or central heating.
Drive the older neighborhoods, and many of the chimneys remain. Step inside, and it’s common to see ornate old mantels framing antique fireplaces. What’s a lot less common is to see cozy fires crackling there.
In many cases, the guts have deteriorated. One long, hot day, a friend and I spent hours in the attic of his century-old shotgun double, re-pointing the chimneys. The mortar between the bricks had deteriorated to the point that in many places it resembled talcum powder. Not only were the chimneys incapable of channeling smoke –– they were also in danger of eventual collapse.
A more fundamental problem is that most antique fireplaces in New Orleans were built for coal, not wood. Once upon a time, coal vendors drove their carts down the streets, calling out to hawk their products. Now you’d be hard-pressed to find the sort of coal you could burn in an antique fireplace.
And wood is not an option. The fireplaces are too shallow, for one thing, says chimney sweep Kenneth Lincoln, owner of A Chimney Doctor Inc. And the chimney itself isn’t designed for the job.
Burning wood produces a lot of smoke, which in turn builds tar, or creosote, on the inner wall of the chimney. If it builds up, it can catch a flying ember and catch fire. That’s a big part of why chimney sweeps exist. With a wood-burning chimney, the inside is lined with metal or terra cotta to make cleaning easy.
With a typical antique coal-burning chimney, there is no lining but plenty of mortar lines where creosote can build up and hide from the most diligent chimney sweep. And the bricks and mortar of a coal chimney are typically not of a grade designed to handle wood-burning heat. Coal burns at a more moderate temperature.
Coal-burning fireplaces and chimneys can, of course, be retrofitted, says Lincoln. “The only limitation is the money end of it.”
Lincoln says retrofitting a chimney and fireplace in good condition will cost at least $6,000; rebuilding will cost $20,000 to $30,000. If you don’t make the investment, he warns, “don’t think you’re going to be able to use this fireplace and get away with it –– because you’re putting yourself in harm’s way.”
That may mean complete reconstruction. “Sometimes I find I’ve got to be the bearer of bad news,” Lincoln says.
Repairs to wood-burning chimneys and replacement of prefabricated fireplaces are far more common than retrofits.
In fact, Ron Foster, owner of Masonry Products Sales in Mid-City, says that between collapsed chimneys and flooded fireplaces, his company saw a major boom in business in recent years. His company, he says, has replaced 50,000 to 60,000 fireplaces since Katrina. A flooded fireplace must be replaced because of the deterioration that submersion can cause.
In a lot of cases, the main expense is not in replacing the fireplace but pulling off the mantel to get to it. “Most of your money is in the front façade of the fireplace,” Foster says, and you have to pull a lot of that off to get to the guts.
For chimney repair, because the mason frequently must work hand-in-glove with a roofer, Foster recommends hiring a reputable general contractor to oversee the work.
Lincoln says the chimney should have a cap at the top and a damper at the bottom to keep out the elements. “If you don’t have a cap on top of it, then what you have is an open hole in the house,” Lincoln says.
Furthermore, he says, the chimney should be constructed as a “free-floating structure” that doesn’t depend on the house for support. “When you see a house that has burned down and the chimney is still standing there, that chimney was properly built,” he says.
One approach to renovating a fireplace is closing off the chimney altogether and installing a vent-free gas fireplace. But they generate a lot of heat, Foster says, so you should contemplate installing them only in large rooms with high ceilings. Foster also sells an electric fireplace with a fake flame.
If you have a fireplace already functioning and in good condition, the key to long life is regular maintenance. Lincoln recommends sealing your chimney every so often with a special water repellent called ChimneySaver. And, of course, keep in touch with your trusty chimney sweep. Inspections and cleaning of chimneys and fireplaces run from $190 to about $390, Lincoln says, depending on the combination of services.