Great Walls of Fire

Fires to warm thew cockles of your heart, and just about everything else.

I grew up with a fireplace,” Fred Natusch recalls. “We had fires in there every weekend. Sometimes roaring fires. As a kid I used to have my fire trucks set up around it.”

Allan Dorfman, too, harbors fond memories of a hearthside childhood. “There’s something about a fireplace,” he says. “You light it up, you stare into the flames. It takes you to a whole other place. We had one when I was a kid. I loved it then, too.”

When two men have such cherished memories of fireside life, it’s unthinkable that either would build a house without a fireplace. Unthinkable, also, that their fireplaces wouldn’t be something special.

Allan Dorfman, owner of Essentials of Martha’s Vineyard, a clothing and home furnishings store in Edgartown, built his Deep Bottom Pond home in 1995 with no fewer than four fireplaces. He designed and built the house with the help of several professionals – many of them friends. When it came time to build the fireplaces, he enlisted the aid of mason Bob Stafford of Boston. “I have  a reputation for doing multiple fireplaces that have multiple openings off one chimney,” Bob says. “Allan knows me from my work on the Vineyard over the years. We’re also friends. He had a concept of the shapes, the areas, and the materials.”

The living-room fireplace is massive, taking up most of the wall that faces the master bedroom. For the firebox, Allan chose the Rumford configuration – shallow, with a sharp bottom-to-top pitch to the back wall – because, he says, “it throws a tremendous amount of heat.”

The granite blocks surrounding the firebox and wood-box arches are cobblestones from the old Chelsea Street jail in Boston. “If you look at a couple of these stones,” Allan says, “They’re really worn pretty smooth, and they’re all different kinds of shapes. They might be from the inside of the jail house.”
The apron is rose granite, but it didn’t begin that way. To be economical, Allan purchased a piece of marble in the seconds room of an off-Island furniture store. The piece turned out to be coated in plastic rather than polished, and when the fireplace was lit, the plastic began to burn. The apron was quickly torn out and replaced. The custom mantel is purpleheart, built by contractor Tony Cordray of West Tisbury.

Allan chose a beehive-shaped fireplace for the master bedroom for its aesthetics and fuel efficiency. He points proudly to the curved stones surrounding the arches – acquired from the same purveyor who provided the jail-house stones. An arched niche matching the firebox contains shelves to accommodate books, and balances the small firebox set at the other end of the hearth.

The fireplaces directly above and below the living-room and master-bedroom hearths are also large, but tend to be more traditional. The upstairs fireplace offers a cozy atmosphere in the big-screen TV room; the fireplace downstairs graces the music and media room. Although all of the exterior chimney brick is new, all of the interior brick is recycled – there are more than 10,000 of them, every one carried in by Allan. He also mixed and carried all of the mortar. He stopped counting at 150 bags.

Speaking of doing things yourself: There’s a joke among the friends of Fred and Gwendolyn Natusch of Tisbury: give them a bunch of steel wool, and they’ll knit you a car. Fred is a lineman for NStar electric, and Gwendolyn has a master’s degree in education from the University of Michigan and is working on a second master’s in social work. When the time came to install the fireplace in their hand-built home, Fred and Gwendolyn harvested their own stones from Vineyard beaches. They had no idea how many they would need. “She had a LeBaron convertible,” he chuckles. “She would go down to the beach and come home with a pile like this.” Fred laughs and arches his arms to indicate a mountain of stones.

Although they left the building of the flue and chimney to a professional – “You don’t mess with that stuff,” Fred says – the Natusches designed and built the interior of the fireplace themselves. The hearth – another Rumford firebox – gives off a comfortable amount of heat and helps makes the countrified living room feel rustic.

Even the mantel is a found object: a large, heavy, yellow-pine timber that was pitched like a javelin into a sand dune on South Beach by Hurricane Bob in 1991. “I backed my truck underneath it,” Fred says, “cut off about a ten-foot length with my chain saw, and let it drop into the truck.” Cutting the heavy beam to size and placing it high up on the hearth took ingenuity, requiring many jacks and much patience. Gwendolyn remembers following the cutting of the mantel fondly. “It was like Christmas, the house smelled so piney,” she recalls. You can see the initials of a couple carved into the mantel – a reminder of the time it spent on the beach.

Another found object – a wooden and iron swing-like chair that painters used to traverse the outside of buildings – has found new life as a small shelf hanging beneath the mantel. On it stand a miniature wooden boat and a whimsical toy frog. Even the fireplace tools hanging under the mantel are homemade. The handles are former copper grounding rods onto which Fred grafted the business ends of the old tools.

The only part not homemade is the new custom insert the Natusches recently had made off-Island to improve the efficiency of the firebox. “Now, when we go to bed and we’re done burning and have all the heat we want in the house, we just close the doors,” Fred says. “We can just shut it down and not lose any heat up the flue.”

Fred and Gwendolyn take great pride in their home-wrought hearth, but when asked how he learned to build a fireplace, Fred answers simply, “Actually, Gwendolyn bought me some masonry books.”

See, any of us can build our own beach-stone fireplace. All we need are “some masonry books.” Oh, and several tons of beach stones, blacksmith skills, and expertise with a chain saw.