Cozy Comforts of Fire, Now Luxe

Once a necessity, fireplaces are now an indulgence.

Article by Craig Kellogg

fireplaces_1A wood-burning fireplace and original Brocatello marble mantelpiece, revived during restoration for a client by architect Alan Barlis, in a West Village 19th century townhouse once owned by Robert De Niro. Photograph by Ashok Sinha/The New York Times.

New Yorkers know all too well the familiar, grating sounds of winter: the hiss, clank and gurgle of radiators.

In elite corners of the city of 8.5 million people, a privileged few are soothed by something else: the crackle.

A working fireplace — from a wood-burning hearth to a gas-powered pit — is as rare as Central Park’s Hot Duck. In 2015, the city banned wood-burning fireplaces in new construction. But fire once powered New York, where many buildings predate electricity, said Kirsten Ring Murray, an architect and owner at Olson Kundig.

“It’s easy to forget about how necessary and fundamental fire was,” she said. “We’ve removed something so essential and beautiful from our everyday experience with modern technology. As designers, we are bringing back its primordial pleasures.”

Fire is now a luxury.

A room’s gas fireplace at the Aman New York, a hotel conversion of a 1921 office building by luxury resort designer Jean-Michel Gathy that contains more than 100 fireplaces. Photograph by Ashok Sinha/The New York Times.

Fires Everywhere

As a boy in Belgium, Jean-Michel Gathy, a luxury resort designer, was charged with adding logs and shoveling ashes to keep his family’s enormous walk-in fireplace burning six months a year.

With that inspiration, Gathy placed more than 100 gas fireplaces within Aman New York, a hotel conversion of a 1921 office building at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue. Gathy’s design uses fire lavishly, as multiple gas fires ring the indoor swimming pool and more burn in the lobby. The adjoining outdoor roof terrace hosts a modern sort of gas bonfire on a tidy round island centered in a reflecting pool.

In a suite upstairs, wood panels that retract surround a bathtub so bathers can view an impressive free-standing glass fireplace at the foot of the bed. Whenever he sleeps at the Aman, the designer said in an email, he keeps his “fire going even when I switch off all the lights, until the very last moment.”

The lobby gas fireplace, with industrial crank and chains for raising and lowering its safety screen, at the Cortland Condominium, a brick tower on the Hudson River in Manhattan. Photograph by Ashok Sinha/The New York Times.

Crank It

Sawmills, foundries and warehouses once filled West Chelsea, so architect Kirsten Ring Murray said she wanted to “touch the industrial memory of the neighborhood” for the new interiors of the Cortland apartments, a riverfront brick tower by Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

The centerpiece of the lobby is a rugged lobby fireplace that she said telegraphs “light and life.” The fire, which is gas, burns sealed behind glass. Children may safely take a turn at the playfully oversized crank and exposed chain, which raise and lower the decorative sepia bronze fire screen mechanically. “Adults love it too,” she said, noting the “sense of wonder from seeing how things work.”

‘Jump Around’

A downtown Manhattan couple, Alana Frankfort, 38, and Dovid Spector, 45, headed to the Upper West Side after their daughter, Sienna, was born in 2018. They settled on a penthouse in a newly built tower with brown oak parquetry and beige limestone, although Tori Golub, the couple’s interior designer, found it “hard to imagine a fun young family there.”

Golub looked for ways to adapt the apartment to the tastes of Frankfort — a founding member of digital retailer Gilt City and a daughter of Lew Frankfort, the former CEO of Coach — and Spector, a real estate executive. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Frankfort said.

So the couple trusted Golub when she advised demolishing a humdrum mantelpiece and re-imagined the hearth by taking inspiration from the 1960s sculpted fireplaces of French artist Valentine Schlegel. “It was like, ‘How do I interpret her work without copying?’” Golub said. The finished white lime plaster surface is by Art in Construction.

The fireplace withstands family life, although children were not its sole intended audience. “They run and jump around, but we also entertain adults,” Spector said.

A Duraflame log buns in the fireplace at the East Village one-bedroom of Zack Moy. Photograph by Ashok Sinha/The New York Times.

Smoke Free

“We don’t have a country house, so this is where we need to be cozy,” said Carol Holt, a retired real estate agent.

She had admired the contemporary lines of a Manhattan neighbor’s bio-ethanol hearth, and asked its architect, Rawlins Design, for something similar in her high-rise living room with no chimney.

The alcohol fuel, which is colorless and fermented from plants, does not produce soot or carbon monoxide that would need venting outdoors, said Christopher Rawlins, the firm’s principal. He alerted building management, but did not need special approval from the New York City Department of Buildings.

The wide new 78-inch custom burner from Polish manufacturer Planika has a white powder-coated finish to match the custom polished Calacatta Michelangelo marble firebox. The fire serves as the focal point for Holt’s living room, with a TV above. “There’s an altar to the television in every New York apartment, so we covered it up,” she said.

Surprisingly heavy robotic doors, plastered by Kamp Studios, slide open automatically with a smartphone app. Holt decided not to link the fire itself to the app. “The grandkids love to grab our phones,” she said. “We hide the fireplace remote in a high cabinet so they can’t just start pushing buttons.”

The Cub Scout

When Zack Moy was searching for an apartment to buy, he spotted an East Village one-bedroom — photos showed a large, unlit wood-burning fireplace. “Does that work?” he asked a real estate agent, hopefully.

It did, and Moy, who founded, a supplier of funeral planning software, was sold on the “small but mighty” apartment.

Moy, 35, didn’t actually know how to use a fireplace. Knowledge of making fire came from his Cub Scout days so he watched several YouTube tutorials to learn to build one “without burning the building down.” Once a month, he bought wood from a bodega to mark special occasions or to roast s’mores. Then he learned about more convenient pressed-sawdust logs.

He ordered three boxes of Duraflame logs and estimates that the logs cost $1 an hour to burn. “I’ll come back from visiting a funeral home in Chicago, light a fire, sink into the couch, and I’m home,” he said.

How Many Fireplaces Are Enough?

Underneath the deteriorating 1970s décor of a West Village town house were multiple grand 19th century rooms, said Alan Barlis, an architect. “America has a bulldozer culture,” he said, and he has a passion for sustainability.

The house, once owned by Robert De Niro, had 14 fireplaces, although only six actually worked by they time Barlis got his hands on it a decade ago on behalf of a client.

The facade of the building has official landmark status, but the interiors can be changed as an owner sees fit. Barlis embarked on detailed restoration, with an eye toward ecology. They went from 14 fireplaces to two — one is in the basement kitchen and the other, with an original Brocatello marble mantelpiece in the rear parlor, is the star of the show.

Its mantelpiece too fragile to move, the fireplace was remade gingerly. A 4-inch supply pipe got nested within the old chimney shaft, to duct fresh outdoor air down from the roof (supplying the oxygen needed for combustion, outdoor air that never mixes with the room air). Can heavy, dirty firewood — typically chopped miles away — be considered more sustainable than, say, a gas log?

“Well, wood is not a fossil fuel,” said Jessie Goldvarg, an associate at Barlis Wedlick.

White marble was used by Rawlins Design to create a sleek, broad hearth at the apartment of Carol Holt, with flames powered by bio-ethanol, a plant-derived alcohol fuel that does not produce soot or carbon monoxide and needs no venting. Photograph by Ashok Sinha/The New York Times.

It’s So Ralph

Fireplaces and Ralph Lauren go together like corduroy and cashmere. Two of the Ralph Lauren boutiques on the Upper East Side have traditional fireplaces that burn gas.

But upstairs from Ralph’s Coffee on Madison Avenue, one of the seasonal furniture salons features a bold, unapologetically faux fire nothing short of master stagecraft.

Dramatically magnified footage of flames, like a seasonal yule log video on the Jumbotron, licks across frameless LED screens. Indeed, the 22-second loop is broadcast from a mini PC running digital-signage software. To complete the illusion, the store’s visual team sheathed a boxy faux hood using painted wallboard, adding an oversized framed abstract by Chicago-based artist Michael McGuire.

In the Bath

“I love sculpting things,” said Bill Sofield, the jet-set architectural designer.

He sculpted a plaster bas-relief for the chimney breast of an indulgent primary bathroom of a home in the West Village for two New York friends Sofield has known since their days at Princeton. The floor is travertine, the P.E. Guerin taps use rock crystal, and the free-standing Waterworks tub is burnished cast-iron.

The Island Diversified workshop in Calverton, New York, enlarged Sofield’s handmade scale model for the enchanted forest inset, then walked it up the stairs in a single piece. Rather than fake logs, however, the gas fire here dances across a collection of futuristic ceramic spheres and cones.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.