Over the Hill

Do Californians really need fireplaces?

I turned my heater on Wednesday morning for the first time since last spring.

Outdoors, the Paso Robles temperature was about 40 degrees. In our house, it was a chilly 67. So I slid the little toggle switch on the thermostat from “Cool” to “Heat.” The temperature soon climbed to a comfortable 69 degrees.

And I never gave a thought to lighting a fire in our fireplace. After all, it’s just a decoration. It’s been many long years since residential fireplaces were necessities. I grew up in the 1930s in a farmhouse in western New York state. It was old, but it didn’t have a fireplace.

Of course, it also didn’t have a thermostatically controlled heater/air conditioner like our house does now.

No, that old farmhouse was heated by a stove in the kitchen and a furnace in the cellar. They burned wood and coal. Somebody had to light the stove every morning with matches, paper and kindling. The furnace fire was carefully banked every night so it wouldn’t burn out overnight.

My father called the furnace “pipeless.” It had no pipes to distribute its heat to the house’s various rooms. Instead, its heat rose through a grating, called a register, in the floor above it. The heat then found its own way around the house. There was also a smaller register in the upstairs floor.

On cold mornings, my sister Mary and I jumped out of our beds and grabbed our clothes. Then we ran downstairs to stand on the first-floor register while we dressed. The stove and furnace produced more heat than a fireplace could and required less tending.

My wife, Mamie, and I bought our first house in 1957 in San Jose. It was brand new and had thermostatically controlled, natural-gas heating. It certainly didn’t need a fireplace, but it had one in a living room wall. It was neatly decorative but wholly unnecessary.

I actually built a few fires in that fireplace. But we quickly concluded that watching the flames from a few pieces of burning wood was less interesting than watching TV or reading a book.

There was also the messy job of cleaning out the ashes. And smoke also occasionally drifted out into the living room. That was probably my fault, though. I was an inexperienced fireplace tender.

Since then, we have bought two other houses, both with decorative fireplaces. Our second house had a fireplace in one corner of its living room. That gave the fireplace two open sides. A sturdy, steel pipe stood in the fireplace’s open corner supporting the upper bricks.

Our third home, which is our present address, also has a fireplace. Its brick facing is shaped like a thick rainbow over the fire box. It dominates its wall.

Maybe many Californians do thoroughly enjoy their fireplaces, or maybe not. I don’t notice much fireplace smoke. Or maybe these fireplaces are just a case of “This is the way we’ve always done it.” If that’s true, maybe we should forget fireplaces and hang works of art on that bare living room wall. A colorful Navajo rug might be nice.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 805-238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.