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Finding the Unexpected When the Fireplace Fails

brick by brick, a homeowner learns rebuilding is more than a ton of work – eight tons in fact

Justin Patchin

I wasn’t there when the deluge of water began gushing through the haphazardly-patched hole in the roof, but the expletive in the text message I received from my wife during a thunderstorm suggested trouble at home.

It started out a rehabilitation job, with some retribution built in. The fireplace had been giving me fits since soon after we moved into the house nine years ago. I spied the bricked beauty when we first walked through with the Realtor, and I was excited about the prospects of wood-fueled warmth come winter.

The deconstruction turned out to be a treasure hunt. As is apparently common, the mason who built the fireplace left some gems within the empty spaces between the bricks.

The first cold snap came early that year and I rushed to take the edge off the chill by building a blazing fire. Almost immediately, smoke overwhelmed the living room. Each time I tried to have a relaxing, crackling fire, the smoke alarms would inevitably scream. More puzzlingly, smoke was also finding its way to the basement. I thought smoke was supposed to go up, not down?

After numerous consultations with several local and online experts over the course of many years, no one could explain the problem with our fireplace, let alone offer a simple solution. Finally, I had had enough. It was cold and I wanted warmth – the kind of heat only red-hot coals from a renewable resource could create. I resolved to remedy the situation one way or another. In the end, there was only one viable option: dismantle the old fireplace and build anew from the ground up.

Demolition began in early June. I cautiously clambered upon the roof and started tearing the old chimney down, brick by back-breaking brick. Once work transitioned to inside the house, my eight-year-old son assisted. Turns out he is a natural when it comes to demolition. He approached the endeavor with a focus I don’t usually see in him, sometimes setting about at the same spot with several strikes of his hammer against the chisel until finally a brick would give up its grip. It was a joy to watch.

After a couple of long days, which included a teeth-clinching late-day run to a tool rental store to procure a powered hammer chisel (my son loved wielding the power tool), we were left with roughly eight tons of bricks, blocks, and mortar piled to the bottom of the basketball rim on the edge of the driveway.

We also had a hole in our roof. And as a result of my hasty patch job, I’d inadvertently traded a faulty fireplace for an unwelcome water feature in our living room. I climbed back atop the roof during the downpour and slowed but didn’t stop the stream. I’ve learned that construction requires more careful consideration than destruction. The next day I called the professionals who competently repaired the roof pending the rebuild, only to go weeks without measurable precipitation.

The deconstruction turned out to be a treasure hunt. As is apparently common, the mason who built the fireplace left some gems within the empty spaces between the bricks. His name was August “Fritz” Ausman, and from what we unearthed he drank Mountain Dew and smoked Raleigh Lights. He also liked to include Doritos, Twinkies, and Cheetos in his brown paper sack lunches. Receipts for materials confirm the original structure was built in July 1983. Graciously, Fritz left us two B&W coupons, which, as stated in the fine print, “may be redeemed for gifts according to terms of B&W Gift Catalog then in effect.” People of his generation might recognize this as a loyalty program for his brand of cigarette. According to a 1984 advertisement, 100 coupons and a small fee could have gotten you a Black & Decker circular saw. Perfect, I thought, for a person looking to fix a hole in their roof.

Fritz died in November 2008, just two years before I started that first smoky fire in our new home. I couldn’t help but reflect on this man I’d never met throughout the remaining stages of the project. Had I stumbled upon the worksite when he was first setting stones, I’d have been about the same age my son is now. This project was a figurative and literal pain in a lot of ways, and certainly not without setback. But working alongside my son those weeks, and being able to share with him the warmth of the finished product some months later, would make it all worthwhile.

Inspired by August and his ilk, we cobbled together a cache of local, contemporary “treasures” and stashed them within the bowels of the new fireplace prior to pinning the last sheet of plywood on the wooden support structure that would eventually hold the new natural rock exterior. We included some snapshots and a brief note. I added a copy of a book I wrote, along with that week’s issue of Volume One. And finally, moved by the generosity of the B&W coupons, we included a fully punched Burrachos punch card. Have a burrito on us, future fireplace dismantlers. We know what you’ve been through.