In At Home, Bill Bryson’s history of his British rectory-turned-residence, he reminds us of the fireplace’s origin: the development of good bricks in the late Middle Ages. Before that, homes were heated by a central, open flame that sent smoke wafting to escape through a hole in the roof. Suddenly those bonfires could be domesticated and relocated to alcoves lined with bricks, which handled heat better than stone did. Fireplaces didn’t revolutionize the heating of the house—they were, and remain, inefficient—but transformed its layout by enabling the construction of a second story and the division of floors into rooms.
Writing centuries later in his 1932 autobiography, Frank Lloyd Wright instructs us on how to build a house: “I could see necessity for one chimney only … The big fireplace in the house below became now a place for a real fire … It comforted me to see the fire burning deep in the solid masonry of the house.” He’s offering a blueprint for what became a quintessential 20th-century American house, yet in those words you can see him yearning for the Medieval Ur-fireplace at the center of the room—the open hearth in the open home. As his biographer Meryle Secrest puts it, for Wright the fireplace became “the primeval center, almost the high altar of the house.”
No longer by necessity the house’s physical center, the fireplace became its spiritual core. In this gallery we present the high altars of 13 homes, ranging from the massive hearth of Taliesin West to a discreet Saarinen cubbyhole, from a Philip Johnson–designed wood stove to Thomas Jefferson’s Rumford fireplace at Monticello—all captured by Esto photographers.