KEEPING THE HOME FIRES BURNING

by ROBIN HOWARD

NEXT TIME YOU’RE WATCHING Masterpiece Mystery or Downtown Abbey reruns, pay attention to the hearths; you’ll notice British fireplaces have a very distinct most homes in England were heated with coal that was burned in an elaborate iron construct called a coal grate, a fire basket or a fire grate.

Elaborate fire grates were a point of pride for British homeowners. In fact, they were considered works of art because they were custom-built to suit the size of the fireplace and the décor of the home. Though durable and hardworking, they were also meant to be decorative, with elegantly curved feet, brass accents and florid motifs cast into the iron back and sides.

At first, it may seem odd that so much care would be put into the inner workings of a fireplace, but consider that at the time there were no televisions or radios. Cold, dark evenings were spent around the hearth, reading, sewing or sipping teeny tiny glasses of sherry. The fireplace was the focal point of a room, and people spent enough time staring at it to warrant lovely details worth holding the gaze.

Hearth design and aesthetic is so important in British culture that it has been immortalized in weighty and riveting tomes, such as the 1912 archive The English Fireplace: A History of the Development of the Chimney, Chimney-Piece and Firegrate with Their Accessories from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the XIXth Century.

A preference for decorative fire grates migrated with the colonists, so you’ll frequently see these beautiful British creations in historical homes, including many in Charleston. A traditional fire grate is as much a part of a home’s architecture as the woodwork, which means that when restoring a historical house—or giving a newer home that particular British manor ambience—installing a historically accurate fire grate is paramount. The problem is, authentic British fire grates aren’t mass-produced or readily available, so how do you find one?

That’s the problem Homefires USA, a small North Carolina company, set out to solve when it began importing traditional fire grates from London in the 1990s. Today, the business still imports a line of antique replica fire grates that are made in England the same way they were made 200 years ago. Patterns are created from historical fire and coal grates through a sand-casting process and then cast in steel and brass. You can use these historically accurate fire grates with wood (or even coal), but most homeowners prefer to fit their grates with a gas burner, a process that owner Alex Radmard has perfected.

“Our traditional fire grates are still made in England, but we now make the fire mechanism in Charlotte [North Carolina]. Everything is locally sourced, and we’re able to go from sheet metal to finished product right here in our shop. It’s a ‘100 percent made in America product,’” he says. “It also gives us the flexibility to do custom work for our clients. We can tailor-make a fire grate to suit the architecture of your home—and you just don’t get the same bespoke look unless it’s custom- made.”

If you’re building or restoring a contemporary home, Homefires USA has a large selection of modern fire baskets with streamlined aesthetics that range from art deco to uber-modern. The company also carries a beautiful line of firedogs, the bracket supports on which logs are laid. To complete your British hearth, Homefires USA imports club fenders, or padded brass fireside benches, and floor fenders, which are designed to keep logs from rolling out of the fireplace and onto your Oriental rugs.

Whether you are the caretaker of a historical or modern home, your fireplace is the focal point of the room. Invest in a custom-made fire grate, and you just might find yourself spending quiet winter evenings with the television off, talking, reading and gazing at your beautiful hearth.

Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.