A Burning Desire
by John Arnopp & Jenny Burns

We had no working fireplace during the time we lived in an 1890-ish Klinkner/Edwardian – the pre-bungalow era version of an “affordable” home in Northern California. After 13 years, we moved to a 1923 California bungalow in Piedmont. The fireplace in our new home looked all right, except that you could see nothing of the original tile face or wood mantel. At some point, the mantel had been removed and a fake green marble opening surround and traditional wood mantel installed, leaving only the original tile hearth exposed.

We wanted to have a working fireplace and, more importantly, we wanted to preserve the original craftsman look as much as possible. This is where we got sucked in to the restoration saga, with a lot of luck and coincidence in our favor.

Right after moving in, we removed the fake opening surround to reveal more brownish tile like that on the hearth. A lot of the edges were chipped, and it didn’t look very good, so we left it at that for over a year. Around Thanksgiving, we decided it was time to tackle the project again. That’s when we pulled the wood mantelpiece off to reveal a wall of tile, but with many chipped and broken, especially at the top. It was clear that the tiles were not really that brown, but probably smoke-stained. The cleaner tiles had a blue glaze with a beige over glaze, giving a slightly mottled effect that really glows in the sunlight.

We had hoped to find some design-work or relief tiles, like many of the neighboring homes have, but there were only 6x6 tiles, some cut down to 3x6 around the opening, all the same color. Our bungalow was not built to be fancy by any stretch. In fact, the 1926 city assessment form lists the inside finish and trimmings as “plain” (as opposed to “ornamental”) and the decorating as “cheap” (the three other choices being “ornamental,” “medium” and “special”).

Now that the damage was done – most of it not by us, since the house had been used as a rental for the past 30 years – we set out to find matching tile, if possible, to complete a repair. That weekend we went to a popular salvage yard (Omega Salvage in Berkeley), knowing it was a long shot. This was the first lucky coincidence: we found a tile mantel shelf and other trim pieces in a blue/beige glaze that was clearly from the same manufacturer as our tile and close enough to be the same glaze. But some pieces were missing and we had no idea what we would do with these anyway. We had no idea there even were tile mantels and knew from the profile on our wall that we had had a wood mantel. So we left empty-handed.

But later the same day, after thinking about the kismet of it all, we decided to purchase the pieces (and even traded in the old wood mantel). The new pieces were stamped “California Art Tile Co. Richmond, Calif.” on the back, but our original pieces had no markings at all. In researching the California Art Tile Company, we discovered that the company was founded in 1922 as the Clay Glow Tile Company, but incorporated in 1923 as the California Art Tile Company. This fit perfectly with the age of our house and the missing mark. It also proved that this tile mantel could never have been in our house, both because of the stamp and because it was probably not used in a house as “plain” as ours was.

Still, the spirit of preservation was upon us, and for the sake of the mantel, we proceeded to search for the right fireplace restoration person. During the winter, these guys are generally very busy, but we knew we had our man when Tony Fehr of the Fireplace Restoration Co. (Berkeley) came over and was really interested in the story and the old tile, telling us about art tiles he had salvaged from other jobs. He was very interested in salvaging the original tile and working with the mantel pieces to create an authentic installation. This was our second lucky coincidence.

Even though Tony has been restoring fireplaces in the Bay Area for almost 20 years, he hadn’t seen the same configuration of pieces we had found, and we weren’t sure how to put them together. We thought the embossed detail protruding tiles (4x6 stretch and 8x6 end pieces) were a support design, and we were ready to install them in that manner under the tile mantle shelf. The next day, however, we received a call from Tony, who said he had been at an estate sale that morning about half a mile from us and suggested we take a look at the fireplace in that house. It was built in 1929 and, while it didn’t have a tile mantel, it did have the other pieces we had. They were actually an opening hood and surround. The third coincidence!

We took some pictures of that fireplace and knew this was the way to proceed. In doing more research, we came across the Tile Heritage Foundation, which sells old tile catalogs as well as providing other great resources. Joseph Taylor, the director, was kind enough to fax us a couple of pages from the Cal Art Tile catalog (1930) that showed installations of a fireplace with a tile mantel and hood pieces, which we worked from. This also gave us the design for the four areas using 3x3s (really 6x6s cut down to size).

Tony fit the handmade tiles back as best he could, keeping the large grout joints that the original also had, trying to keep the overall effect “sweet” to the eye. He explained that the tiles were not the same size. We asked if we had two different sizes of tile, and he replied, “No, you don’t have two tiles that are the same size.” But as you can see, the end result is indeed sweet to the eye.

So, after rebuilding the firebox, saving enough of the original tile, we were able to use full tiles over the entire face and sides, incorporating a salvaged mantel, and sweeping the chimney. We can now enjoy a warm fire in our cozy, if plain, bungalow.