by Jon Valalik (photo by By Wdo)
Grab your No. 2 pencils, everyone! It’s time for CIRCA School, where we uncover the fascinating facts behind everyone’s favorite old house details.
The chimney pot is maybe one of the most humble embellishments that can be added to a building, yet it has the potential to change the entire look of a chimney. They can be small, smooth terracotta cylinders or elaborately-designed iron structures, and their effect on the look of a home, though sometimes overlooked, can be drastic.
The elaborate chimneys on Hampton Court Palace in London are a precursor to the chimney pots we see on American houses. Photo by Jonathan Cardy.
Chimney pots became popular in the United States in the 19th century, and it’s believed they were brought over by French and English settlers. Out of necessity, they were mostly applied to homes in cold-weather climates. When coal or other sources of fuel were burned in the fireplace of a home, a significant amount of toxic gas was generated. Increased draft created by a chimney pot allowed for more of the harmful substances to be carried safely through the roof of the home and an increased amount of fuel was able to be used to further heat the home without fear of injuring the inhabitants.
As popularity of the chimney pot grew, artisans and manufacturers began mass-producing them for homeowners all over the country. The boost in popularity resulted in a secondary function: decoration, particularly in warmer climates where heating was less of an issue.
Chimney pots in London. Photo by Adrian Pingstone.
A great proponent of chimney pots was Andrew Jackson Downing, a sort of Martha Stewart of 19th century landscape and architectural style. Downing wrote often about his philosophies in American architecture, and his books and articles were used by homeowners, builders, and tradespeople as definitive guides to design and decoration. So, when he declared that chimney pots were a sophisticated addition to a home, people listened.
Andrew Jackson Downing thought that chimney pots were perhaps best suited for the Gothic Revival style. However, as they are often located at the highest point of a building, builders of many styles have embraced them as an important detail. Today, throughout the country, there is an enormous variety in the size and shape of chimney pots.
Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, CT typifies the Gothic Revival style. Note the chimney pots! Photo courtesy of Historic New England.
AUTHOR JON VALALIK
Jon grew up in South Carolina and studied Historic Preservation and Community Planning at the College of Charleston. His time in Charleston sowed a deep appreciation for both classical and vernacular styles and the importance of their conservation. He is currently working in Charlotte, North Carolina and hopes to break into the field of architectural preservation soon.