Sorry for the recent radio silence - it's been a bit challenging at Norris House since our last post. Structural issues continue to plague the project, and we still await the requisite approvals from the National Park Service for the project. The budget is in tatters and there's no end in sight as the delays associated with these issues mount. It really is frustrating to try and do right by what was once a beautiful historic home, only to encounter roadblocks at every turn. Clearly we need to distract ourselves with something interesting in an attempt to remember why we started this madness in the first place. Today's shiny distraction: the fireplace.
Originally, Norris House had at least four fireplaces, which we think were all pass-through, double-sided versions. In other words, all eight rooms of the original 1879 structure had a fireplace which aligned directly to a fireplace in the adjacent room. All were coal burning. There are still some pieces of coal in the basement and some built-in masonry coal bins. Unfortunately, none of these eight rooms today feature a fireplace of any kind. As best we can tell, the butchering of the house which converted it into a boarding house removed all of these original fireplaces. We imagine this occurred concurrently with the installation of radiators, because the coal fireplaces were the original heating system for Norris House.
What we do have is a single fireplace in the hallway at the back of the house. This area has prompted some debate; we're not sure why this fireplace is here, or what configuration this area had in the original house. Most seem to settle on the idea that there was a single story room running the width of the back of the original house with a simple shed roof on top. It's frankly a mystery as to why this fireplace would be in this location, but it's the only one that survives today. There's a lovely brick back end inside the wall, and an adjacent brick chimney that runs through the second floor and all the way out of the attic roof - but the chimney isn't connected to the fireplace. Here's what it looked like when we bought Norris House:
Like everything else, this fireplace has been abused. Layer after layer of paint is caked on to what state historic preservation officers believe is a slate fireplace surround. It was quite common to use slate fireplace surrounds with a decorative faux finish hand painted to look like more expensive stone like marble. Some of these surrounds are quite garish and rather obviously faux - the Victorians were hardly afraid of color. We weren't sure what we might find in attempting to restore the fireplace. The paint had long ago begun delaminating in several areas, so we were able to gently lift and remove the flakes that bubbled through the surface. What we found underneath was so phenomenal it took hours of work to determine whether we had real marble or not.
The pictures really do not do the craftsmanship justice. Under all of that paint is a beautifully rendered red marble with black, gray and white veining. The veining is so delicate and so lifelike that it took hours to determine that it was indeed a faux finish. The only way to tell is to check the edges of the surface: over the years the finish has worn off and the slate gray is peeking through.
We'll continue to work on the flat areas the remainder of the week, but have found an expert to finish up the restoration. We're crossing our fingers that the decision to paint this masterpiece was ignorance, rather than a solution to some tremendous damage to the original surface that hasn't been uncovered yet. Here's hoping!