The San Francisco House (1998)
The Big Rumford Fireplace
7/12/99

It was early in the morning that Jeff McNear and I left the brick yard in San Rafael for the city. We had been invited to watch a This Old House TV film crew "shoot" the construction of our big five foot wide Rumford fireplace. I had provided technical help to architect, Barbara Chambers, in designing the fireplace and Jeff, who's family runs McNear Brick & Block, had provided the components and materials.

We had talked with Jim Dayton, the mason contractor, but had not met him until that morning and Jeff and I were anxious to know what he would say about the Rumford.

We all arrived at the job site, a 1906 Arts and Crafts-style church in San Francisco's Eureka Valley neighborhood, at the same time the filming crew arrived. Inside I recognized and shook hands with Norm Abrahms and Steve Thomas while Jim Dayton got right to work with his lead mason who had already started the firebox.

Jeff McNear & Jim Dayton, "on location"

Before long a man I didn't recognize, wearing a tweedy sport coat with patches on the elbows was prompting host Steve Thomas to ask Jim Dayton questions about the Rumford.

"Where are those unusual red firebrick made?" asked Steve.

"Southern California, I think", answered Jim Dayton.

"No, no", I interrupted, "They're Whitacre-Greer firebrick made in Ohio".

The man with the patches on his elbows gave me a look and prompted Steve to ask about the fireback.

"Why doesn't the fireback slant forward like most fireplaces?" asked Steve.

"Well, because it's a Rumford fireplace and it's more efficient if the back is plumb." said Jim. "See how this rounded breast, they call it, keeps the air flowing smoothly up through the throat....."

"Yes, it works like a carburetor" I chimed in. "The air foil keeps the flow laminar and the 'sheet' of room air keeps the smoke behind it like an invisible glass door. That's why we can build a Rumford with such a tall opening."

The man in the coat gave me another stern look but apparently didn't think that would be enough.

"Look", he said, "I know that you know everything there is to know about Rumford fireplaces but this is a two minute piece and we've got to shoot it - so shut up!"

So I did.

They called in the cameras and got most all the questions right. And I am proud to report that the only interruption was caused - not by me - but by a carpenter hammering nails incessantly.

Take two.

The Rumford fireplace is really the focal point of this project. It was built in the sanctuary where the altar used to be, symbolically as well as practically transforming the sanctuary into and defining the new living room. The fireplace opening is five feet wide and four and a half feet tall making it a very big fireplace by any standard.

Jim Dayton did get it right though. The rounded breast, or curved airfoil throat, treats the excess air efficiently so that the opening can be taller and the shallow, straight-backed fireplace can radiate more heat into the room and less heated room air is lost up the chimney to carry away the smoke.

That is the essence of a Rumford fireplace.

Rumford fireplaces were named after Count Rumford, born Benjamin Thompson in Woburn, Massachusetts in 1753 and, because he was a loyalist, he left (abruptly) with the British in 1776. He spent much of his life as an employee of the Bavarian government where he received his title, "Count of the Holy Roman Empire." Rumford is known primarily for the work he did on the nature of heat.

Rumford fireplaces are tall and shallow to reflect more heat, and they have streamlined throats to eliminate turbulence and carry away the smoke with little loss of heated room air.

Rumford fireplaces were common from 1796, when Count Rumford first wrote about them, until about 1850. Jefferson had them built at Monticello, and Thoreau listed them among the modern conveniences that everyone took for granted. There are still many original Rumford fireplaces-often buried behind newer renovations-throughout the country.

More About Rumford and Rumford Fireplaces

Finished Picture of Rumford
Story about the Construction
This Old House Magazine
More About Project on This Old House TV Website
Rumford Fireplace Under Constriuction

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