The Story of the Lonely Chimney

You know we love old stone fireplaces and chimneys. So we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share a story about a little lonely chimney that’s lost its home. This information comes to us from architect Leonard J. Baum.

How did this stone chimney become an orphan, you ask? It was originally attached to a 3/4 timber-framed cape, circa 1720-1740, located in Rhode Island. The home rotted and collapsed in on itself, leaving the stone chimney to stand by its lonesome for several winters until, last year, when frost heaves made it necessary to carefully disassemble the structure and store it away for safe keeping.

According to Baum, the chimney cap was fashioned of hammered smooth stones, packed in red clay. Walls were constructed of dressed stone, laid up in very soft lime putty; infill between walls and flues appeared to be a mixture of stone chards and red clay. The bake oven was topped with a turtle-shaped stone and featured a wrought-iron lintel. The kitchen fire box featured a chestnut lintel.

The chimney is almost completely dismanteled and sitting on pallets, with the fireboxes mapped and marked. Baum seeks a new owner who will incorporate this structure into a new or vintage design and also more information on this early American form of masonry. For more information, visit

A Pro Stone President?

Thomas Jefferson, architecture, brick and stone construction

Founding father and third president Thomas Jefferson was a proponent of stone and brick home construction.

…We … will produce no permanent improvement to our country while the unhappy prejudice prevails that houses of brick or stone are less wholesome than those of wood … A country whose buildings are of wood can never increase in its improvements to any considerable degree. Their duration is highly estimated at 50 years. Every half century then our country becomes a tabula rasa, whereon we have to set out anew, as in the first moment of seating it. Whereas when buildings are of durable materials, every new edifice is an actual and permanent acquisition to the state, adding to its value as well as to its ornament.”

Thomas Jefferson was quite dismayed by colonists’ insistence on building timber-framed homes, of which he wrote, “It is impossible to devise things more ugly, uncomfortable, and happily more perishable.”

Ouch! Harsh words. But why all the masonry haters in early America? Back in the day, stone homes were considered a big no-no, at least if you spoke to early colonists who migrated to New England and the Tidewater region from southeast England. The reasoning was thus:

  • Stone and brick were considered poor insulators that let in cold air and damp conditions unless packed tightly together to form 2 to 3-foot-thick walls. Dew that gathered on thin interior stone or brick walls created an unhealthy living environment.
  • Lime used to make mortar was scarce, as were stone masons.
  • Lumber! Trees had to be cleared from a home site before construction could begin so why not use what was readily available?
  • Timber framing was familiar to this group, homesick and longing for reminders of the Old Country.
Cuckoos Farm Little Baddow, timber framed home, England

English colonists built homes to resemble those they left behind, like this 17th century home located near Chelmsford, England.

Parson Capen House, Topsfield Massachusetts, timber framed colonial home

The Parson Capen House, located in Topsfield, Massachusetts, is a fine example of 17th century New England architecture. The home bears a strong resemblance to houses in Toppesfield, England.

Who loved a cozy, solidly built stone home? Dutch settlers in the Hudson valley of New York and northern New Jersey, and German, Quaker and Scots-Irish settlers in eastern Pennsylvania. Each group constructed homes in farm styles similar to those they left behind in the Old Country. The best way to cure the damp caused by condensation, wrote Jefferson? Light a fire!

English stone cottage

This all-stone cottage, located in Northern England, would have served as a farmer’s home.

Samuel Fulton Stone House, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Irish settlers

The Samuel Fulton Home, originally located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was patterned after old stone farmsteads that dotted the countryside in Northern England, Scotland and Ireland.

Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson
Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and of the Early Republic by Fiske Kimball
Early American Architecture: From the First Colonial Settlements to the National Period by Hugh Morrison

Old Stone Fireplaces: The Heart of the Home

old stone fireplace, granite fireplace, Old Rock House, Georgia, old stone homes

Old granite fireplace in the cellar of The Rock House, Thompson, Georgia. Source:

It’s pretty safe to say we have an ongoing love affair with fireplaces. Who doesn’t ooh and ahhh at the site of chimney ruins or perk up at the very mention of a wood-burning fire. Aside from the crackle and pop of oily logs as they simmer in an open hearth, what draws us so keenly to these expansive structures? With blizzards lashing the East Coast and all eyes on the weather forecast, it seems a perfect time to focus on old stone fireplaces and their importance in the design of early American homes.

The earliest fireplaces were cut out of one side of a single-room dwelling, log cabin or cottage, with an exterior chimney of clay over a sturdy, upright stick frame. The interior was coated with more clay, mud or plaster to fireproof the structure. These so-called “Welsh chimneys” or “mudcat chimneys” were certainly a fire hazard and eventually gave way to sturdier structures of brick and/or stone.

In Colonial New England a centrally located chimney quickly became the norm. The stone column itself radiated heat while large fireplaces within the chimney faced out to each of two first-floor rooms. If the first floor was not at ground level, a fieldstone chimney would have been supported, underneath the first floor, by a load-bearing foundation of brick, fieldstone, rubble stone or a mixture of all three. The rectangular structure measured 5 to 10 feet on each side and featured timber “cradles” at the ceiling to further support the chimney. Oftentimes, a bake oven was installed inside this foundation.

central chimney, Hasley House, old historic homes

Example of central chimney, Hasley House, circa 1648, Southampton, New York.

In the Mid-Atlantic and Tidewater regions, chimneys were embedded in end walls or pushed to the outside completely. End chimneys served two purposes: to keep heat out of the home during summer months when the fireplace was used for cooking and to allow for a front and back door connected by a central hallway — and much-needed cross ventilation.

end wall chimneys, old stone chimneys, old stone homes

Example of end wall stone chimneys, Hezekiah Alexander House, circa 1774, Charlotte, North Carolina

Unique to the Delaware and Hudson Valleys and Dutch settlers was the “jambless” (sideless) fireplace comprised of a stone or dirt hearth, an iron, brick or stone backing to protect the wall behind it and a hood and chimney that led the smoke up out of the home. Bonus: Residents could sit on three sides of the fireplace. Drawback: The hood was an ineffective way to draw smoke out of the home.

old stone fireplace, granite fireplace, old rock house, Georgia, old stone house

Granite hearth, The Rock House, Thomson, GA. Source:

Early stone fireplaces were massive (12 to 15 feet in width). Why? The fireplace served as a light and heat source (both day and night in cold weather), cookstove and storage space for a vast array of cooking equipment – spits, pots and more. Constructed of native stone, the fireplace featured an opening capped with a piece of timber or stone (lintel or “mantel tree”) from which cooking tools hung. From this lintel the formal mantelpiece evolved.

Although the stove replaced the open hearth as a means of cooking food, we are left with these lovely reminders of days gone by. And thanks to caring homeowners and historic preservation groups, examples of old stone chimneys and hearths will remain for generations to come.

Early Cooking Hearths by Gregory LeFever
Early American Architecture: From the First Colonial Settlements to the National Period by Hugh Morrison
The Mabee House: Jewel of the Mohawk Valley
Colonials: Design Ideas for Renovating, Remodeling, and Building New by Matthew Schoenherr
American Architecture: An Illustrated Encyclopedia by Cyril M. Harris
Grandeur and Grace in the Ohio Country; Building America from the Ground Up, 1784-1860 by William E. Firestone

Artistry of the Early American Stonemason

Stonemasons, Fort Worth, Texas

Stonemasons, circa 1906, Fort Worth, Texas. Source:

The earliest American homes were built with stones gathered from open fields or unearthed while a farmer tilled his land. These stones were not shaped with tools, but cobbled together as-is, with mortar used to seal — and compensate for inconsistencies in stone shapes and sizes. The most smoothly faced stones were reserved for the exterior, front-facing sides of stone walls.

Once we had our footing in this new world, we refined the building process and quarried stones for home construction. Enter the stone mason. Once stone blocks were rough cut from the face of a rock quarry, the mason “dressed” or “faced” the stones to suit construction needs.

Old Stone Wall Types

Wall types, clockwise from top left: Fieldstone, rubble and coursed rubble. Source:

To rough-face a stone, the mason first used a mashing hammer to trim away any projections that would prevent the stone from being laid in a straight line. Next, following straight lines he marked with a square, the mason would fine tune his work by trimming away additional stone with a pitching tool and mallet. To smooth-face a stone, a pick was used in place of a pitching tool.

Once all that pounding, trimming and chiseling was done, wall height and width were staked out with string, mortar (a “mud” made by mixing together lime, sand, hair and water) was prepared, trenches were dug and stones set in place, using smaller stones (i.e. gallets) to fill voids between stones and mortar to set the work in place. One part skilled craftsman and one part artisan, the stonemason could envision a design, face stones and then set them in a tightly woven, incredibly intricate pattern that required little mortar to stay put.

Old Stone Mill Rubble Style Stonework

Example of random-coursed rubble walls: James Mendenhall Mill, New Castle County, Delaware, circa 1826. Source:

Rubble is probably the best example of early quarried and rough-faced stone. Rubbled stones retained their irregular shape and size, but required less mortar as they were precisely pieced together. Examples include random-coursed rubble, similar in appearance to a jigsaw puzzle, and regular-coursed rubble, which created continuous horizontal joints.

As masonry improved, rubble was replaced by tooled blocks that were used to build even-coursed walls. The stonemason would “sign” his artwork by chiseling his maker’s mark into an individual stone, cornerstone or lintel – a lasting reminder of his skill and craftsmanship.

Mason's Mark Cornerstone Old Stone Homes

Mason’s mark on quoin or cornerstone. Source: David Sankey.

Masons and Bricklayers
Historic Stonework by William Kibbel III, The Home Inspector
Early American Architecture: From the First Colonial Settlements to the National Period by Hugh Morrison