Was my 50s fireplace originally painted – or unpainted? Spokane Chris ponders.

Hi Pam,

I love your website.  It is truly one of the most valuable resources for a mid-century home owner…keep up the amazing work!

Anyway, I’m writing to ask you a strange question, and any answer you may have will assist me in making some decisions with regard to a future restoration project in my 1958 living room.  I am wondering if you have any ideas about how often (if ever) roman brick fireplaces were painted in the 1950s.  Was it a fairly common practice to paint over the bricks as soon as they were installed?

Normally, I would just assume that a previous owner painted over the brick years later to change the look.  However, over the last several months, I have noticed that every roman brick fireplace I’ve seen in homes throughout my neighborhood is painted.  Same color, same texture, everything exactly like mine.  Could this paint be original to the homes’ design, or did painting one’s fireplace become such a big trend later on, that everyone was doing it.

I live in Spokane, Washington.  The fireplace photo I’ve attached was taken quite awhile ago, but should give you a pretty good view of what I’m talking about.  The other two attachments are pictures of “roman bricks” (actually, I snagged one photo from 1951 Ranch Redo’s site).  Apparently, they were a fairly popular brick choice in the 1950s, although this popularity may have been pretty specific to the Pacific Northwest, I’m not sure.  Every fireplace/chimney in my neighborhood (a housing development containing homes built exclusively between 1955 and 1963) is constructed of these bricks, and every one that I’ve seen is painted white, exactly like mine.

Strange question, I know, but thought you may have some info.  Thanks so much, I’m excited to see what you may be able to find out.  Take care.

Chris

Unpainted bricks on the outside

It’s nice to hear from you, Chris, with this interesting question. Hmmm. I am not sure of the answer. I will keep an eye out when looking at periodicals from the period. Meanwhile, initial thoughts:

  • My first inclination at a response is: No, they were not originally painted. I would normally guess this because (1) there definitely was a trend to ‘bring the outside in’ in the postwar period…(2) they liked mixing textures…(3) I think I’ve seen many more examples of un-painted fireplaces from the period rather than painted ones, and… (4) people were penny-wise…
  • All that said, I agree that it seems more than a coincidence that all your neighbors have the exact same paint-job down to the look and texture. So it could well be a local design preference, or a quirk of the builder.
  • More: Also, I can’t say that the photo of the exterior bricks you sent makes the bricks look all that attractive for an interior installation. Standing back and looking at the brick on the exterior of your house, would you say that it would look good, unpainted, inside? Maybe this is a key to the puzzle. To be sure, people in the 50s greatly preferred brick homes. It was a big selling point. So maybe these bricks were less expensive…but still could help increase the home’s value…but inside, they had to paint them.
  • As for the possibility that the painting came later – I don’t know enough about what trends swept through the country post-1965. Again, even so, it would seem strange that every house latched on, and with the identical paint job.
  • Finally – it sure is nice looking! Why haven’t you sent me more pics of your house? Tell us more!

Sorry I could not be more definitive in my help. As I try to say often, I am not an academic expert, just an enthusiastic blogger.

As usual – I welcome all readers’ thoughts on this!

Be-Safe-graphic2.3

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Comments

  1. Femme1 says

    There is one very distinctive house in my neighborhood that is built of these roman bricks (I never knew what they were called). However, they are of a uniform sandy tan color and the effect is a very modern look. Those horizontal lines is part of what shouts “mid-century” to me.

  2. benevola says

    I live in the South Seattle area in a 1953 rambler and my fireplace is almost identical to Spokane Chris’ fireplace. Right down to the shiny white paint.

    I’ve been pondering stripping the paint off of my fireplace to see what is hiding underneath. The area in front of it is made up of terra cotta tiles and is very pretty next to the darkish hardwoods of the floor. How funny to see another painted 50s fireplace!

    My house also has a raised brick flower box underneath the front windows. It’s maybe 8 feet long by 2 feet deep and 2 feet high. It has also been painted white. What are the odds that it will be made from the same brick as the fireplace?

    The chimney was rebuilt after the earthquake we had up here in February of 2001, and we did not move into the house until October of 2001 so I don’t know what it looked like originally.

  3. SusieQ says

    Hi Chris,I’m not an authority in your area of the country but I can tell you about my mom and our 1950’s brick ranch house in Arlington,Va. The house was built in 1955 and we had a natural brick fireplace as did everyone in our neighborhood.My mom was into decorating and actually became an interior designer later in life.She was always trying new things in our house and she was the first in our area to paint both our walls and our fireplace white in 1960.It caused quit a stir at the time!What I would suggest is to ask around amongst any old timers or original owners to see who the builder was and what was done back then,They would surely have a story to tell as to whether it was a neighborhood trend or a forward thinking builder trying to be very contemporary.Best of luck in your search for authenticity!

  4. Hendrick Kipp says

    My parents home in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. (North Shore Coast area) was custom designed and built in 1952. The brick fireplace was at least 10-12 feet wide, and was always white brick. I was 6 at the time and remember it well. They also added a Ben Franklin firelace/stove in the bonus room, and had that brick painted white also, sometime early ’60’s. Natural brick outside and painte brick inside seems to be fairly common in the States. The ’50’s modern style was the impetus to this design, IMHO.

  5. Allison says

    We are in PNW also and our ’62 modern has the same roman brick with the raised middles. We wondered what color ours originally was so we pulled out the gas insert and the “bricks” were just gray (exactly like cement blocks). I’ve read these bricks came in a lot of colors as they added the color when they formed them. My guess is mine was left gray as it was meant to be painted. Your neighborhood may be the same.

  6. Lisa says

    I have a brick fireplace that I am about to paint white. That is how I stumbled onto this fantastic website! I was looking for fireplaces from the 50’s to see how they look now. I’ve lived in my 1949 Robbinsdale, MN home since 1999. After trying to clean the brick wall surrounding it numerous times without success, I will be painting it white this fall. I’ll have to post some before and after pictures.

    Also, Benevola so long ago wondered if her fireplace and exterior brick were the same. I can tell you mine don’t match at all but are both original.

  7. Judith Campbell says

    I have a 50’s ranch house with a chimney and various parts of the facade built of “Roman bricks”. Now some of the bricks on the chimney have started to deteriorate and I would like to replace them. Does anyone know where “Roman bricks” can be purchased?

  8. Barbara Miller-Collins says

    I was delighted to find out that my home’s fireplace is “roman brick” by doing a search on 1950 homes. I have wondered for the almost 40 years that I have lived here. It remains unpainted. This home is circa 1950 era alphabet (ABC) home built in Richland WA by D.O.E. to house supervisory personnel at Hanford Nuclear Park. The fireplace is huge and dominates one wall of the living room with a relatively small decorative fire box. In addition, whoever built it included a planter as a wing to the fireplace. I cannot tell you how many times I have been inclined to paint it white to remove the dominate salmony, pinky, browny tones from my decor.

    Perhaps this information is helpful to the person wondering about their painted white roman brick fireplace in Spokane WA. By the way, the architect for the alphabet homes was based in Spokane.

    Barbara

  9. Holly Mardis says

    We’re in the process (as we speak) of having our Roman brick fireplace wall refaced with gorgeous light colored stackstone. Our house is 1958, as are most in the neighborhood. We all have the same brick on the fireplace walls, and they’re all pretty depressing. The brick is real enough, but it is just a thin facade. The real chimney/firebox are out of different stuff entirely and sit behind the wall. Anyone having problems with this kind of facade can reface it like we’re doing or probably just pull it down and put something else up. We’re in central NC, and the cost to do the stackstone (manufactured, but very real looking) on a fireplace wall about 9’6″ x 8′, and turn the corner to do the entry wall of about 4′ more is just under 3 grand.

    One thing I thought about doing before we decided to go with the refacing was this (and I don’t know how it would turn out, but thought it would probably work): Paint the entire surface of the brick wall with a nice off white ( the color you’d want your grout to be…pure white is too bright). Use a flat paint. When it’s dry, choose a gloss gel stain in a darker color and, using a foam roller, hit only the very top flat surface of the bricks, being careful not to slop any into the grout lines. This would give the impression of the bricks being ceramic tile instead of bricks. I didn’t get a chance to try this before the guys came to start on the refacing, so, again, I can only imagine how it would look. But if you’re going to paint anyway, might as well give it a try!

  10. Darcy says

    Chris, when I was growing up in the early 1960’s, all the houses on our block had natural brick fireplaces. They were originally built in the 50’s.

    My dad painted our fireplace white about 1965 or so. He was a carpenter and built tract homes, and probably it was something he saw on the job. He was always working on improving our homes, so it was probably something he did to “modernize.”

  11. John says

    If you can scrape paint off of an inconspicuous area, you will probably discover that the fireplace brick is actually concrete blocks formed into a brick shape. Many of the homes in my neighborhood, including mine (Milwaukee 1950-1955) are this way. So yes, they would have been painted when new.

  12. says

    Yes, our 1962 track ranch’s fireplace bricks are sadly grey concrete made to look like bricks and painted white. There is a piece of slate or granite as a lip like yours sticking out that is painted black. There was a insert with a door on the fireplace that I removed and noticed that the black paint on the lip was missing along the outline of the insert. The insert was not original to the house so I am wondering if I should try to remove the black paint and go back to the original grey of the stone lip or just finish the paint job and make it all black? Ah, so many restorative questions…

  13. says

    Hello, I’m renovating a 1965 MCM home in Shreveport, LA, and am in need of Roman brick to match the original (three shades of Buff/Coral–similar to the photo above–but with a “rock” face).

    I’ve located a couple of brick manufacturers who still make Roman bricks (Belden in NC and Cloud Ceramics in KS) but neither has a product that’s an exact match.

    Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

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