The Problem with Historic Home Fireplaces

Historic Homes are beautiful, especially their interior details. My most favorite feature to check out each time I tour a home is the living room fireplace. The amount of differentiation from one home to another is astounding, and I have never seen two homes alike. But for as beautiful as they are, they have one major problem….function in today’s world.

Historic Homes in Minnesota, at least those not log cabins, usually contain coal burning fireplaces. As we all know, coal is no longer an environmentally good choice when it comes to heating your home, and fireplaces are no longer used as the sole heating source either. Another problem arises because most coal burning fireplaces and their attached chimney cannot support the act of burning wood. So a homeowner of an old home with coal burners is left no choice but to cover up the opening with a fireplace cover, as shown in the photo.

But there is hope out there for all historic homeowners in Minneapolis and Saint Paul! I am actually surprised that no one has heard of this option because of the numerous people I have mentioned it to, I always get a “I didn’t know that” answer. If you have a coal burning fireplace and available gas service to your home, you can now have a gas burning fireplace and the ability to actually use the “artwork” which is taking up a wall of your room.

Grate Fires, an online business that specializes in replacement gas fireplace units for older homes, has a fantastic ventless gas unit that is small enough to fit any tiny Victorian fireplace. The picture above is the Ashbery, their smallest unit, measuring 19 inches in front, 13 inches in back, and 9.5 inches deep. You can get a remote control to the unit to turn it on, which I think is a fantastic option.

Now the important thing to remember is that this is a ventless unit. It is made to fit a coal burning fireplace that cannot accommodate wood. What happens is that the chimney will have to be capped outside and inside, as you won’t need it anymore. This not only will save on your electric bill from any cold drafts, but it will allow you to have a gas burning fireplace without the hassle of opening a damper every time you want to use it.

The only thing you will really need to consider is piping in the gas. If you have an old basement that isn’t used, you could easily pipe where you need the gas to go. When we rehabbed a 4000 square foot Queen Anne, with six fireplaces, we piped gas to all six so an Ashbery would fit in each one. Now each room could utilize a fireplace and not just have a big wall decoration on one side of the room. When installed, the fireplaces look amazing. The nice thing to is that if you order multiple units, you get a nice discount!

So if you are tired of looking at a beautiful historic fireplace with lovely tile surround, why not check out a ventless gas burner made to look like the original coal burner that came with your home a hundred years ago. Adding one or more is a great selling point, too, when it comes time to sell your historic mansion.

20 Responses to “The Problem with Historic Home Fireplaces”

  1. unclejack says:

    A funny thing about Las Vegas is that an “historic home” was from the 50’s. I’ve never seen a coal burning furnace here, and fabulously ornate fireplace like you’re showing just don’t exist!

    Great job, Jennifer. I’m pleased to add you to my reading list!

    We’re blogging daily at

    • Jenn says:

      I have a historic home. My home was built in 1885 and I love the look of my coal burning fireplace but I love the idea of the gas changeover

  2. I love the 50’s style, especially in Vegas. Each town has it’s own definition of what historic is. The oldes homes here in the Twin Cities date to 1850, but if you compared those to the colonials on the East Coast, they would be considered young.

    It is always nice to see new readers and find new blogs as well. See you around the blogosphere.

  3. Cynthia says:

    I live in South Carolina. Unfortunately, we have some houses here with less than the needed 9.5 inches depth.

    The one original surround I have also has an attached coal bin/grate. I’ve found many cast iron surrounds, but none so far have the attached coal bin/grate. I hope I’m using the right terms here.

    I think I’ll just end of making mine a non-functioning work of art.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Rob In Mich. The coal fireplaces can be easily re-piped with an insert to burn wood, as we do here in Michigan….

    • Alex says:

      Hi, I just found your thread and am curious about what/how you do it up in MI. My online research has been disappointing, I really think there is a way to update a coal to a wood burning fireplace. Your post boosted my confidence. Any advice you have would be appreciated.

  5. the only problem with converting to a wood burning fireplace is that most likely, the chimney will not support burning wood. The chimney usually has to be rebuilt,or else you risk burning down the house.

  6. Leesha says:

    Sadly, the ventless option isn’t up to code here in Minnesota – what a shame. Back to the drawing board for me!

  7. Joel says:

    As a gas fireplace tech(NFI cert.) of many years I have one question for the fireplace industry. Why do we not have vent free furnace, hot water heater? They burn cleaner than any yellow flame appliance. Why cant I make every gas log set vent free? I get the same level of combustion gas from one as the other. ODS(oxygen depletion sensor) is not a sensor at all. It is a poorly designed pilot hood that is hardly sufficient to insure safe breathing and is easy to trick and mis adjust. Get a gas fireplace insert. It will cost you more but you will enjoy it more without the smell and head ache you will have from a vent free… If it burns it vents, dont let people confuse you with vent free when they mean without a vent.

  8. Joel L says:

    Glad to see this information. Unfortunately your “small enough to fit any” comment was a little short sighted (see what I did there?). One of the coal fireplaces in our 1922 bungalow is only 18″ wide and 9″ deep. Guess it will stay an inanimate art piece.

  9. Paula Sasser says:

    Thank you for this research!! We are looking to purchase a historic home and have seen a lot if coal butning fireplaces here in Mobile Ala..we werent sure they could be refurbished…now we know we can…

    • Linda says:

      We live in a 110+ year old home in Mobile, AL. Grate Fires worked with us and was even able to use the home’s original coal baskets in fabricating the new inserts. While not inexpensive, it was certainly worth the investment. Mandi is extremely helpful with answering questions and coordinating pick up and drop off. These inserts are beautiful, functional and add a special something to the room.

  10. Melissa says:

    We have a 110 year old historic home in Texas. Solid shiplap wall to wall. The coal burning fireplace is made out of 8 inch think stone. Our home is 2 story and we were told that the opening is so small that a tiny fire burning up all that stone would not require a liner. We have the original Cahill cast iron wall, grates, etc. Does anyone else think this is reasonable? Or not?

  11. Jerry says:

    To Melissa: I would use a liner in these older homes. Years of sap build up from wood could cause a chimney fire if ignited. Also consider cracks in the mortar that may allow fumes to enter the walls or rooms undetected. I have a Tudor style home with a brick fireplace with a gas hookup but am hesitant to use it without a liner.

  12. Vonda says:

    Coal burning fireplaces can certainly be functional in these modern times. Coal is just has environmently sound as wood. Maybe even more since it burns cleaner . Coal burn longer and hotter than wood. Although it can’t be the main source of heat for your heat it can warm a room nicely

  13. Allyson says:

    Can the original coal units be converted to use the gas logs as mentioned in the above article?

  14. Yvette says:

    Before we would even consider servicing an old Victorian Fireplace we would have to check the support in the basement to ensure that the unit was originally built properly.
    These Vics are too shallow for most modern inserts and can generally only support a rear vented woodstove in front with a full stainless steel liner up the chimney.
    And then you have to contend with any combustibles that may or may not be present behind the facade.
    Then the hearth.
    It is a lot easier to tell the client to only use it as a Candle burning enclosure.
    There are some untis out there that will retrofit inside [Valor] but there are too many variables in old Vics to risk it.

  15. Lauren says:

    Does anyone know of any electric inserts or electric log sets that would fit an old Victorian? We’ve got an old coal box that is 9.5″ deep and 13″ at the narrowest part of the back. 18″ at the widest in front. Is there any option that is small enough and electric?

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