- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2006

If the weather outside is frightful, what more delightful place could there be than a spot in front of an honest-to-goodness fire? If you’re looking for actual heat, go for the down comforter. But for providing warmth of spirit, the fireplace has no equal.

Luckily, Washington has them all, from cozy gas fireplaces to intricately carved examples of the woodcrafter’s art. Whether you are looking for some convivial company, want a romantic getaway on Valentine’s Day or simply want to hunker down alone, there’s a fireplace in town for you — even some that may not be there on the day after Valentine’s Day.

But make no mistake. Crackling wood and flying sparks aside, not all fireplaces are created equal.

For one thing, they don’t all burn wood. Because of safety considerations, most fireplaces around town are gas fueled. So you can forget about the crackle of kindling, the hiss of new logs, and that shower of sparks.

• • •

Unless, of course, you can generate some flying sparks of your own. You are more than likely to do that before the fireplace at the Library Lounge of the St. Regis Hotel, a paneled nook that serves drinks and light fare and is, well, cozy.

True, the lounge’s fireplace doesn’t burn wood. But with the gas jets turned down to a dull glow, the flickering flames fit easily into the Library Lounge’s rich, cozy-with-a-touch-of-class aesthetic.

And the spots by the fire go to the early birds.

The Library Lounge has been in its present incarnation at the St. Regis for about 15 years now, but the hotel itself, at 16th and K streets Northwest, has been around far longer. Constructed in 1926 as the Carlton, the hotel has entertained every president since Calvin Coolidge. (Except the current one, but they’re hoping.)

Built in the style of an Italian Renaissance palace, the hotel became the Sheraton-Carlton in 1953 and the St. Regis in 1999. It was recently named one of the “Top 200 hotels in the world” by Conde Nast Traveler.

A sense of history and continuity is readily apparent in the Library Lounge, which is nestled in a small space just off the main lobby. Here, pictures of presidents and other public figures circle the walls. There’s even a painting of a very nubile-looking Clara Barton over the mantel.

Just don’t look too closely at the rows upon rows of books; they’re fakes. But then, who wants to read when the lights are low?

Because that’s the other thing about a fireplace. It’s not just about the flames. It’s also about the atmosphere.

• • •

Then again, flames do matter. Do you like your fire low and soothing, as at the Library Lounge? Or is something tall and dramatic more likely to suit? If you opt for the latter, then check out the fireplace in the John Carroll Room at 1789 Restaurant in Georgetown.

“Yes, it’s gas,” admits Molly Schoen, reservations and private party manager. “This is an old building, and we want to be safe.”

Gas or no, the flames in 1789’s fireplace practically dance with enthusiasm, leaping up like the real thing in an old-fashioned country hearth. That’s hardly a surprise, though, for a place that bills itself as specializing in new American country cooking. The room itself, filled with Currier and Ives prints, is named for the Marylander who founded Georgetown University in, yes, 1789.

Among the most requested tables in the John Carroll Room are numbers 14 and 15, which are — not surprisingly — near the fireplace, where the sense of cozy domesticity is at its height.

Just as much a Washington institution as the St. Regis, 1789 has been around since 1962, when then-owner Robert McCooey wanted to create a place where Georgetown University faculty members could go for good seasonal American cooking, and Georgetown students could bring their families. The university’s campus is just a stone’s throw away.

The building itself dates from about 1800, Ms. Schoen says, and has undergone much renovation since then. She’s not quite sure when the current fireplace was installed.

“We’re not really sure how things were laid out in 1800,” she says. “But there haven’t been that many changes since it’s become 1789.”

Today the Federal period house is divided into a series of small, themed dining rooms, filled with antiques and period prints. This makes for an intimate yet elegant experience whether you are in the Pub Room, with its oak banquettes and gas chandelier, or the Middleburg Room, filled with images of the hunt country, or any of the others.

But if you are looking for a fireplace, you’ll have to go to the John Carroll Room.

• • •

Can’t afford 1789 prices but still want to enjoy the fireplace? There’s another one downstairs at The Tombs, Georgetown’s own version of the student pub.

Of course, it was devised back in the days when college students could drink legally. Today, it’s a comfortable, cozy establishment with dark wood and collegiate sports paraphernalia that still attracts a younger crowd, along with a coterie of regular faculty members and neighborhood folk.

The tables by the fireplace are nearly always filled, often by strangers whose desire to sit by the fire is stronger than the need for familiarity.

• • •

If your tastes run more to the romantic than the convivial when it comes to fireplaces, then check out — or check into — one of Washington’s wonderfully intimate bed and breakfasts, many of which feature fireplaces and are perfect for a weekend getaway, even if you are only getting away from Northern Virginia.

At the 1883 Swann House in Dupont Circle, guests can enjoy evenings sipping sherry in front of a real wood-burning fire in the common room, or go upstairs for their own personal fireplace experience courtesy of a Duraflame log. Each bedroom features its own working fireplace.

“We do cater to romantic couples looking for a getaway,” says Rick Verkler, manager at Swann House. “Of course, we have a lot of business travelers too, who want something different from a large hotel.”

Many of the public rooms at Swann House feature a fireplace, each in a different and one-of-a-kind style. Because that’s another thing about fireplaces: There are as many ways to dress them up as there are hats for ladies of a certain age.

Want that classy, clubby look? Opt for warm mahogany. Looking for elegance? Try a few white and blue tiles. Feeling classical? There’s nothing like cool marble and an ivy swag or two.

Like many of the larger freestanding homes in its east Dupont Circle neighborhood, Swann House was originally designed as a private home for a single owner intent on showing the depth and breadth of his aesthetic experience.

In this case, the designer, the peripatetic artist and architect Walter Paris, was so immersed in his travels that he never actually lived in the house. (One of his paintings, however, hangs in the drawing room.)

By 1899, the mansion was redesigned and renovated by famed Washington architect Thomas Schneider, who is also responsible for about 2,000 other buildings in the District, including the Cairo Hotel.

Schneider added the front stairway and heavy semicircular arches, among other stylistic touches, that are associated with the singular style of architect Henry Hobson Richardson, who incorporated elements of early Romanesque and Christian architecture to his work in the late 19th century.

During the house’s heyday in the early 20th century, dignitaries including the J.P. Morgans and the Tafts were regular visitors to the house, Mr. Verkler says. Apparently, the then-owner, a wealthy widow who upon her second marriage had received a $4 million wedding gift from her Philadelphia financier soon-to-be husband, liked to party.

“We actually have a photograph of Taft leaving the house,” says Mr. Verkler, who spends a lot of his spare time researching the house’s history.

The current owners, Richard and Mary Ross, purchased the home in 1989, and opened it as a bed and breakfast in 1997.

Among the more noteworthy of the fireplaces in the house is one of carved marble, in a style vaguely reminiscent of Greek Revival coupled with cherubs and swirling leaves. For years, the mantel was covered over in paint.

“There were fifteen coats of paint on this,” Mr. Verkler says. “I don’t know why someone would cover this over.”

• • •

If the fireplace makers’ art is more what drives you to the fireplace, then consider a tour of the Brewmaster’s Castle, the Heurich House, where no fewer than 15 fireplaces, each unique, are in as pristine a condition as they were when they were first crafted back in 1894.

But move fast. They may very soon be closed off to public view.

Longtime Washingtonians may be familiar with the mansion as the home of the Columbia Historical Society, later the Historical Society of Washington D.C. After the Historical Society moved to the City Museum, the mansion was taken over in 2003 by the public, not-for-profit Heurich House Foundation, which forestalled the then-imminent sale of the house, but only for five years.

The foundation, which has continued to operate the place as a museum, must raise $5.45 million by June 2008 to secure the purchase.

And if you want to see some of these one-of-a-kind fireplaces, you may have to hurry. Rising interest rates have made it impossible for the foundation to make the necessary payments; unless it can raise $250,000 by Feb. 15, the mansion will face foreclosure and sale — and the interior will be lost, after 50 years of being opened to the public.

“The reason why people are so concerned about the loss of this castle is that it is the most intact example of a Victorian interior that we have,” says Gary Heurich, grandson of Washington brewmaster Christian Heurich.

“Only one family lived here, and they made very few furnishing changes. The real tragedy about the loss of the castle is going to be the loss of the interior. The place is like a time capsule.”

More than 8,400 visitors enjoyed the museum and adjoining gardens in 2005.

The fireplaces themselves each carry something of the story of the house and the family who lived in it, says Evelyn Parker-Murphy, a docent for the house.

“The tiles coordinate with the decor and style of the room,” she says. “The custom-made, bronze-plated, cast-iron fire backs are unique. Even the tiles are different.”

The Brewmaster’s Castle was also one of the first “smart houses,” with a central vacuuming system and a design of vents and window openings that would pull the hot air up and out of the top of the house.

No wonder it was so unusual. The house took two years to build.

“August Grass and Sons actually moved their shop to the back yard. They brought all their milling equipment up here to build the fireplace mantels,” Mr. Heurich says.

But none of these fireplaces was ever used.

“Grandfather was deathly afraid of fire,” says Mr. Heurich. “He had been through three at his breweries and didn’t want any more.”

The result? Visitors today have an opportunity to view the fireplace maker’s art relatively unchanged since they were first installed.

“My favorite is the one in the entry hall,” Mr. Heurich says. “I’ve always liked the lion on the fire back.”

During the time they lived in the house, the Heurich family got to see the Dupont Circle neighborhood change, as the great Gilded Age mansions that once dotted the circle were replaced with more mundane office buildings and banks. They also got a glimpse of a president gone a-courting.

“Edith Galt lived nearby,” Mr. Heurich recalls. “So they could watch President Wilson on his way to visit Mrs. Galt.” (Mrs. Galt would soon become the second Mrs. Wilson.)

The family also got to enjoy the first fireproof private home in the nation’s capital, with walls that are up to 3 feet thick.

So will the fireplaces in the Brewmaster’s Castle ever be lit?

“I certainly don’t think so,” Mr. Heurich says. “I know that if I did that, Grandfather would come back and haunt me.”

Settling beside a fireplace

Looking for a fireplace? Here’s a list of those mentioned in the story.

• The Brewmaster’s Castle: The Heurich House, 1307 New Hampshire Ave. NW. Public tours 12:15 and 1:15 p.m. Wednesday, 1:15 p.m. Saturday. Admission $5. Victorian garden open to the public free of charge Tuesday-Saturday. 202/428-1894 or brewmasterscastle.com

• The St. Regis Hotel: 16th and K streets Northwest. Library Lounge is open noon-10 p.m. daily. A special Valentine’s Day dinner, at $95 per person, will be served at the St. Regis Restaurant. 202/638-2626 or starwoodhotels .com/stregis/search/hotel_detail.html?propertyID=193

• 1789 Restaurant: 1226 36 St. NW. Dinner served nightly. Reservations suggested. Complimentary valet parking. Jacket required. 202/965-1789 or 1789restaurant.com

• Swann House: 1808 New Hampshire Ave. NW. 202/265-4414 or swannhouse.com

• The Tombs: 1226 36 St. NW (downstairs from 1789). 202/337-6668

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