Warms My Heart

There are many things I love about our home, but the overly ornate fireplace it came with is most definitely not one of them. The marble, the columns, and the excessive amount of trim have always been my least favorite part of our house. I’ve spent the past ten years filling the surrounding built-ins with family photos and favorite board games, so there are plenty of happy memories in this space even if I don’t love the backdrop.

Clark and I have never been drawn to gas fireplaces, even ones without an overly fancy facade. We installed cast iron wood stoves in our first two homes, and used them constantly during our long Alaskan winters. Clark regularly stoked the stoves so well that we’d have to open windows for fresh air, even when it was 20o below zero outside. Wood stoves are kind of our “thing.”

Sadly, a wood burning stove isn’t feasible in this house. The roof is too high for us to clean the chimney ourselves, and the exterior pipe would need to be boxed in to protect it from our wicked winds. Not to mention the constant mess from hauling firewood up a flight of interior steps. Even if we would have tolerated those hurdles, it would have been a train wreck for resale.

I accepted that wood burning was out, and proposed a budget-friendly(ish) cosmetic remodel around the existing firebox instead. It wouldn’t be terribly functional, but at least it would look nice. Clark was a hard no on that. The fireplace was so inefficient that we rarely used it, and upgrading didn’t feel worth the money because neither of us are fans of fake fireplace flames.

And so we entered a decade long state of limbo. I’d all but given up.

Then in August we discovered this beauty. It’s a Vermont Castings Radiance direct vent gas stove. How did we not know about this option for all these years?!

Okay, okay… it’s gas. But it’s also beautiful. It looks nearly identical to the Vermont Castings wood stoves we installed in our previous homes, so we found ourselves all nostalgic and in love. Due to COVID we haven’t travelled for an entire year, which helped us afford this project. I was ecstatic with this spontaneous purchase (trust me, a rare and welcome emotion for 2020).

Break out the heavy hammers and crowbars! Demo day was harder than it looks on HGTV, and it took us the better part of a weekend to clear this single corner. Even so, I’ve never been happier to create a giant mess in my living room.

Removing the big mirror was the trickiest part, but Clark got it down in one piece!

We hired out the drywall work, and that crew also built our hearth base.

Once the drywall was installed, I repainted the entire living room. (Actually, since we had drywall pros in the house we had them repair all the cracks from the 2018 earthquake, so this turned into a lot of painting in several rooms!)

Clark made it clear from Day 1 that this project was my deal, and he left all the design decisions up to me. #nopressure #thanks?

I found this inspiration photo on Pinterest and got to work:

First up: material for the surround. I hauled home dozens of sample boards and propped them against our walls. (The cast iron skillets represent the stove… what can I say, I’m a visual person!) The two finalists were stack stone from Home Depot (MSI Trevi Gray) vs. tile from local treasure Curtis and Campbell (UnitedTile Marca Corona Bricklane in Olive).

I sent these photos to friends and family far and wide, sorta seeking their opinions but mostly hoping they would validate my love for the tile and reject the stack stone. The votes were equally split, so in the end I held my breath and went with my gut. Now that the project is complete I can’t imagine it any other way!

The next big decision was the hearth. We went with a solid slab of polished concrete with a chisel edge. I was worried it would look too chunky, but in the end I think it’s 400 lbs. of perfection. The slab is actually only 2 inches thick, but it sits atop the wooden base and the edges wrap around to make it look thicker. We were thrilled with Custom Concrete Countertops for creating this showstopper!

The other big decision was the mantel. We picked out a 6×6 beam from Northland Wood. It’s a spruce log from the Fairbanks area. I lightly sanded it before staining with a dark Espresso color that we had left over from another project. It’s sealed up with a water-based matte polyurethane.

Now it was time for our team of contractors to return. They installed the tile and took care of the electrical work, trim, exterior pipe vent, and mounting the mantel.

Once the surround was ready I could hardly wait for the stove to arrive! I couldn’t resist placing a few Halloween decorations atop the newly installed mantel, and must admit I spent copious amounts of time staring at this corner as if it were work of art!

Speaking of art, on a whim I propped up our personalized boot print from Anchorage artist Annie Brace (Corso Graphics) and love how it looks so much that I think that’s where it shall stay!

The big day finally arrived in early November, when Chimney Doctor installed the stove. We’ve been enjoying it every evening since! I was anxious to see it in action (it wasn’t hooked up in the store) and was relieved that the flame looks similar to a wood burning fire. It’s blue for the first few minutes, but it quickly transforms into a lovely reddish orange. We do miss the smell and crackle that comes with real wood, but this was definitely something to be thankful for come Thanksgiving. (And of course, I redecorated the mantel appropriately!)

All that was left was the flooring. We both would have preferred a solid surface product, but sometimes there’s more month than money so we went with carpet instead. The transformation is complete, and I must say… I think it’s even better than Pinterest.

My favorite seat in the house is now the floor in front of this stove, and I finally feel at home.

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