Giving face-lifts to fireplaces

Changing the look of one of a home's key features can be easier than expected.

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P.A. PORTNER (left), LEN SPODEN / Washington Post Political figures Mary Matalin and James Carville redid all the fireplaces at their home in Alexandria, Va. The one at left was replaced by the grander one at right.

Interior designers often say a fireplace is the focal point of a room. But if yours leaves you cold, take heart. Giving it a facelift can be easier and cheaper than you think.

Cerphe Colwell and his wife, Susan, were bowled over by the five-level townhouse overlooking a lake they bought two years ago. But they were utterly underwhelmed by the white mantelpiece and glass-and-brass doors on the builder's model.

"I wanted something big. I'm thinking Stonehenge," says Cerphe Colwell, the pioneering underground and new-music disc jockey now heard on radio's World Class Rock. So after moving in, the couple sketched a more massive fireplace in the soaring great room, then called in Concrete Jungle, a fabricator in Frederick, Md., to cast them a new one. Total cost: about $3,200, says company owner Kelly Carr.

Similarly, Tom and Sandy Ross Jones couldn't bear the "old-fashioned" floor-to-ceiling brick fireplace of their 1950s Alexandria, Va., rambler, despite the attempt by an earlier occupant to disguise it with white paint. So, as part of a 2003 renovation, they had contractors sheath the brick in drywall, paint the whole thing celadon green to match the adjacent living room walls, and add a sleek black granite surround and hearth. Total cost: less than $1,500.

In both cases, there was nothing really wrong with the original fireplaces except the owners didn't like them. And the makeovers drew raves.

"We were completely surprised at how this simple, inexpensive change made such a huge difference in the room," says Sandy Ross Jones, an event planner.

Josh Baker, president of Bowa Builders in McLean, Va., has seen hundreds of facelift candidates.

"A lot of the time, the brick is not attractive. Certain styles have changed, or you see an entire wall of brick. For a while, there also were these firebox cubbies for wood storage. People tend to be getting away from that."

In one home, he says, a floor-to-ceiling brick fireplace with two built-in niches was completely transformed: The firebox was given an earthy fieldstone surround; on either side, identical wood cabinets and doors were added, with a small window cut over each cabinet. One cupboard now houses the sound system; the other conceals access to the woodpile outside the house. Total cost: $10,000.

Dated brick is not the only problem Baker cites. "Particularly in '70s and '80s houses, you had big, thick rustic beams applied to the wall as a mantel shelf, and those are out of favor," he says. "We take them off and replace them with something traditional, or nothing at all."

Decorative woodwork is often a good solution, whether it's a simple, ready-made mantelpiece or elaborate custom work. "In a more masculine den, we'll stain the millwork. For a traditional look, we'll paint it," Baker says.

Designer Chad Alan has performed a number of personality transplants on unloved fireplaces. For one project, he left the existing mantel and shelf but added vertical panels of custom millwork from mantel to ceiling to draw the eye upward. Everything was painted white, and sconces were installed to flank a pair of vivid botanical prints. Total cost, with lighting: $1,800.

Designer Dana Tydings has mirrored the surround on two of her own fireplaces. She calls this the "second-cheapest way" to go because silvered glass with a polished edge starts at about $9 a square foot, and even a sliver can pack a punch.

Tydings also is a fan of the very cheapest way: a $50 paint-over that involves little more than a coat or two on the bricks and/or mantel, as well as the firebox interior.

"The easiest thing to do is to paint the mantel and the brick a beautiful white," she says. Equally simple is painting the bricks the same color as the walls - Tuscan yellow or very pale latte, perhaps, "but not baby blue, for God's sake. . . . And always keep the mantel the same color as the trim, or refinish and urethane a natural wood mantel."

Another frugal fix is to replace the small terra-cotta tiles used on hearths in many older houses. A single slab of natural stone creates a more sophisticated, upscale look with minimal construction.

For one radical metamorphosis from traditional to contemporary, Tydings removed a dark wooden mantel, shelf and tiled hearth, then covered a 6-by-8-foot section of wall with 24-by-24-inch porcelain tiles at $11 a square foot. She chose a tile that mimics pricier limestone, which runs about $14 per square foot. Total cost: $1,750.

In Old Town Alexandria, spouses and political duelists Mary Matalin (the rabid Republican) and James Carville (the die-hard Democrat) sought interior drama from designers Ed Bouchard and Bud Yeck of the Mill Co. The makeover included refacing all the fireplaces, including something muscular enough to anchor a vivid coral living room, which is featured in the January issue of Architectural Digest.

The designers swapped out a "typical Colonial wood surround with dentil molding" for the high drama of a limestone mantelpiece with an undulating crosspiece to "improve the architecture of the space," Bouchard says. The stone mantel cost $4,300; a new granite surround and hearth, labor and other items brought the total to $10,400.

"It's like a great piece of jewelry that makes an outfit. It is hugely dramatic," Matalin says. "Designers say start with the rug. I say start with the fireplaces."

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