The Cross House

Wanna Meet My Mantels?

The Cross House was built in 1894 and had eight coal fireplaces.

All the mantels AND over-mantles are in situ. Amazing. Amazing. Amazing.

Because the house also had radiators, it seems curious that the fireplaces were even used. I mean, why bother with the work and mess?

The mantels were, I presume, all ordered from catalogs. This was common.

The tile surrounds are all by the America Encaustic Tiling Company.

There are three styles of cast-iron surrounds for the openings, and three styles of insert/cover plates (which are removable, so as to light a coal fire). I did not realize there were different styles until today. I don’t think the inserts are “summer covers” because the latter are solid, where all my inserts feature filigree openings, and were obviously meant to be year-round.

What follows is a whopping 46 images.



Yummy. There were gas/electric sconces on the sides of the chimney breast.


Cast-iron surround, Style #1. One tends to notice the mantels in the house, but the cast-iron work is also stunning.










Yummy. Gas/electric sconces to each side.


Surround, Style #2.






Detail similar to Entrance Hall.




Yummy. My favorite. There were gas/electric sconces on each side of the chimney breast.


Surround, Style #2 with different insert plate than Parlor.


Gallant Man. Who is he?


Fair maiden. Who is she? I appreciate rather than love these representative tiles.






Gorgeous hand-carved panel. LOVE.






Yummy. There were no sconces to each side. Curious.


Surround, Style #3. The insert plate is, sadly, missing.


My favorite tile in the house. LOVE.


Detail. This looks English to me. Anybody know what this detail is called?


I strongly suspect that the overmantel is not from a catalog, but custom. Wanna know why?


Because it matches the china cabinet.




Yummy. There were no sconces to each side. Susan and Harrison Cross had one child, a son. He also had one child. When he divorced (!), his daughter, it seems, moved in with Susan and Harrison. The Round Bedroom, I presume, was hers. And all this would explain the VERY girly mantel and tile. (This image fascinates me. I enjoy the contrast between the sweet, girly, and gorgeous mantel and tiles, and the horror of the adjacent plaster walls!)


Surround, Style #2, with Library insert plate.


Another mystery lady. Staring forever at her…


…mystery Man. And both watched by…


…mystery girl.




Detail. At some point, some idiot ruthlessly gouged out holes for sconces to each side. I plan to get in my time machine and slap them. Also, wouldn’t it have been MUCH easier to install sconces in the plaster wall????????






The Octagon Bedroom was, I presume, used by Susan Cross. As such, one would assume a better mantel, right? This one seems WAY less expensive than the other mantels in the house. Most curious. The mantel has also been damaged by a long-term water leak (fixed). The mantel is repairable. There were gas/electric sconces to each side.


Surround, Style #2, with Library insert plate.


Tiles. Pale green.


At some point, it appears that one tile on top fell to the floor and was replaced, with amusing inelegance, by a plain red tile. The tile to its right also presumably fell, but did not break, or it was loose. It was reset. Upside-down. I am assuming the installer had a bit too much whiskey? I am 50/50 about repairing this curiosity. A part of me longs to correct this aesthetic injustice. Another part of me just smiles when I look at this, and thinks: There is a story here. Savor it. (Want to earn a million dollars?)






The Sewing Room is en-suite with the Octagon Bedroom, and it, too, has what looks to me like another budget mantel. There were gas/electric sconces to each side.


Surround, Style #3, with Parlor insert plate.


Tiles. VERY pale green. A while back I found matching tiles on eBay, but they were gray.






There are three “masculine” mantels in the house. One in the Library, one in the Dining Room, and this one. Was the Long Bedroom used by Harrison Cross, thus explaining the masculine mantel? This mantel matches the dining room mantel. There were gas/electric sconces to each side.


Surround, Style #1, with Entrance Hall insert plate.


The tiles are kinda taupe.


This detail again.


Unlike the overmantel in the dining room, which is, I suspect, custom, this one looks like a catalog item. I do love columns. Particularly petite ones.




51 Responses to Wanna Meet My Mantels?

  1. Well, I’m dying. This post has killed me.

    I have to believe that no one would install that many fireplaces without planning on using them.

    I don’t understand a coal fireplace. How does that work?

    • Fireplaces had been around forever. Radiators were quite advanced when the Cross House was built.

      As such, I suspect that the fireplaces were simply a default item. It’s just what people did.

      Also, I assume coal fireplaces worked like wood fireplaces. Place coal in grate, light, and enjoy.

      It’s my understanding that one should NOT use wood in an old coal fireplace. I don’t think the flues are large enough.

      They make coal conversion kits, where a gas insert can be installed. I will do a later post about this.

  2. I LOVE your mantles! Despite the abuse, these are in incredible shape. So beautiful it almost makes me cry. You must be so proud!

  3. I can only assume from my mothers fondness for 19th century literature that the first man and woman tiles are Robin Hood and Maid Marion. The next couple are Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI and overlooking them is Empress Maria Theresa.

    My coal fireplace is in shambles! How best to repair it?!

  4. I believe the vertical oval sunburst is actually a representation of the North Star. Very important for trade around the world before GPS!

  5. Ross, I am struck that all your grate covers are ventilating covers. One of my grates has a solid winter cover to seal the opening after the fire died down to prevent wind gusts from blowing ash into the room, and a matching but pierced-work one like all of yours for summer use, when the fireplace would be swept clean and the chimney updraft pulled in fresh air from outside. What on earth is that eviscerated human heart-looking thing in the dining room fireplace? A remnant of an Aztec brunch? A left-over Eddie bit from your last Rocky Horror party?

    • Yep, an Eddie bit! Ya’ caught me!

      The previous owner put some sort of insert into the dining room fireplace. Electric fire? Gas? The “heart” you see is spray foam!

  6. duck tape makes the man.
    BTW – if you look closely at the woman at the top of the surround with the opposing man and maid, you’ll see that is obviously the mom.

  7. OH MY GOSH! They are all so beautiful tho I think the Library is my favorite. Thank Goodness they were not lost during the house’s many changes. they are all so yummy!

  8. And..the red and upside down tile.
    There may be a story there, but not all stories are good.

    This is like a sadist doctor enjoying hurting the patients he is tasked to help, or uncaring at best. Like a botched reconstructive surgury by a hack.

    If you can, I think you should heal her. Do a better job than whom ever did that.

  9. In response to John’s comment, the solid fronts were called summer covers and were for the warmer months when the coal grates were not in use.

    See here for the term in use.

    This c1907 catalog has some info on grates and frames and covers. It is a little later, but still relevant (they call the decorative covers summer pieces).

    I expect a damper was used to prevent downdrafts.

    • I stand corrected by the expert! What would one call my pair of covers, the solid one a summer cover, and the piercework one a ventilated summer cover? I have salvaged a bunch of 1890-1914 houses here, and have not seen a damper in a masonry coal grate, though higher-end houses with (rare)cast iron inserts had them . Most grates here, and ones in my house, are quite small–8″ deep X 18″ wide, narrow throat-legacy of Count Rumford. Bluefield was a coalfield boomtown with overnight wooden Queen Annes climbing the hills around the railroad–maybe the local builders customarily omitted them?

  10. I’m no expert – I’ve just wasted more time reading and buying old trade catalogs than your average old-house nerd. And I don’t mean that as a good thing. Right now my 14-year-old wants to go learn how to drive a car, but I’d rather discuss coal-burning fireplaces apparently… 😉

    I honestly don’t know about the damper question or pierced cover question, and as Ross can attest I can be quite convincingly wrong about my assertions. The original catalogs are my usual arbiters of fact vs. anecdote, but they aren’t always clear either. A good illustrated How-To book or guide from the time period would help a lot – probably out there somewhere.

    Donley produced a series of books on fireplaces that might have some info, but I haven’t read them.

    One big problem in all these conversations is the fact that we have moved so far from what used to be everyday technologies, that we often don’t even understand how they were actually used on a daily basis when it was taken for granted in the day. For instance, I’m going to guess that the pierced cover was placed in the frame after the fire was lit, allowing air and heat to pass through while preventing burning coal from spilling or popping (do chunks of coal pop?) out of the firebox. But I have no clue. And where did one put the summer cover during winter – in the basement or closet?

    I think the classic old ceramic-insert radiant gas fireplaces replaced a lot of these coal grates a few decades later, but I don’t know that either. Lost tribal knowledge.

    I haven’t lived with fireplaces in any meaningful way, so I don’t know how dampers worked, and it may well be that they only were installed on wood-burning fireplaces. I assume it has to do with the mythical fireplace “draw” thing…

    Anyone ever used one of these coal grates to actually burn coal?

    • I did. When I was a teen in the mountains of East Tennessee, all the grates were coal burning. The firebox grate had smaller intersections because coal had to be mounded to burn in them. The kindling started with paper, then small wood kindling, then the coal was covering the kindling in a cone with the bigger hunks on the bottom. After the kindling caught the coal a-burning, it was fairly stable, but as it heated, it split the coal. When the splits happened, the coal would “jump” out of the grate, sometimes quite violently. Coal “throws” farther than wood pops, so a fire screen is essential. I notice that the screens have baffles…those little round thingies at the bottom, so I assumed that these were state of the art fire screens. Given that the coal burn hotter and longer than wood, it would be the height of luxury to have such an appliance. The baffles would control the rate of burn and the piercings would provide a romantic glow as it heated the air and the room. With coal, one does not have to have a lot of air for the fire simply because coal burns cleaner. Another advantage is that coal is self banking, so it is a bit less labor intensive than wood. A good coal fire would burn as much as 2-3 days with only minimal maintenance.

      We also had a coal forced air furnace. It was my job all throughout high school to feed the hopper every winter. Down to the basement, open the hopper (it had a worm feed), and shovel coal into the hopper until it was full. It took about 15 minutes to do. Then open the draft box under the fire in the furnace, and shake the grate for the used coal bits to settle into the cooling box and check to see that the fire box didn’t have “clinkers” in it. If it did, one used a long handled tong and broke the thing into removable pieces and took them out of the fire box to cool before disposal. Clinkers are incomplete combustion residue. It resembles spongy rock and is a sign that your furnace needs maintenance.

      Since I’m female, I was very glad when we moved out of coal country!

  11. Interesting context pn summer covers (or fronts or pieces) here, which sounds plausible and authoritative – but these are exactly the sorts of internet references that should be taken as a place to start rather than the final word.

  12. Thanks so much for sharing your time with us! Can’t wait to get caught up on the rest of the blog posts.

    I have the copy of the article from the June 19,1944 Emporia Gazette about my great grandmother and the original house that was moved to Cottonwood. I can send it if you are interested.

    Already sent pics to my daughter – she is definitely jealous!

  13. The mantels are just lovely…maybe replace that one ugly red tile with some cream color feature tile as it’s in the middle and could look like it was intended as it maybe too hard to find a matching tile.

  14. You said your house has no coal room, and I was thinking that wouldn’t they have needed coal for the furnace that put the steam into the radiators as well? If not, what was the source of fuel for that?

    • Good point!

      I am just guessing that the coal was kept in the carriage house.

      Or maybe it was in the basement, and just not shown on the drawings.

      • I can’t remember if you have ever posted pictures of your undoubtedly cool basement; if not, we would sure like to see it sometime!

  15. Ross, I especially enjoyed this post. I have a warm spot in my heart for beautiful old fireplaces. I don’t know if you remember the sad ugly fireplace we have (617 Exchange) We have pics of the original. I would love to find one that looks like the little corner fireplace in the round room. Any suggestions where we might look? I found one at the Antique Mall here in Emporia but it was way too big.

  16. My heart almost stopped. THIS is the post I’ve been dying to see….THE FIREPLACES. I would have bought that house just for those breathtaking fireplaces. Bless you.

  17. After reading this post, I too became fascinated with how coal fireplaces worked. Just found a couple of places that helped:

    Video of how to light Victorian coal burning fireplace. Interesting, but kind of scary!



    I thought this was an interesting article, although specific to Columbus, OH, and more about gas lighting, it makes one want to investigate the conversion process in one’s own city.

  18. I feel like I have been under a rock and unaware that you have been detailing this amazing work of love. I hesitate to comment so far back (I started at the beginning I think… week or months ago. I have lost all track of time while day dreaming about your house. It is AMAZING. You made a fantastic choice and are doing this right. I couldn’t scroll any longer and not speak up. You had me at stained glass, finials, telephone closet! But, fireplaces?!?!? OH MY. I was in Kansas, your area this summer and had NO idea. I knew you were restoring, but I couldn’t imagine how much you are doing. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE. WOW. Keep up the amazing work and thank for letting the world be a voyeur on the process.

  19. Almost caught up with all posts and I agree the library mantel is my favorite. The round bedroom with the blue tiling is a close second. But the lone red tile in the octagonal tiling of that mantel is beyond the pale. What’s up with that?? I agree a drunk worker who hung a tile upside down and perhaps had an extra red tile decided to complete the mixture. Must have been color blind. If red green color blind may have looked brown or gray to that person. ???? Only thing that’s makes sense. Anyone seeing color would not have chosen red even if drunk or falling down drunk. 🙂 thanks for noticing I posted a response. Congratulations on your continued progress. You have come such a long way!! Again when I am able I plan to send you a donation toward your continued efforts. Do I donate through GoFundMe?. I am in Overland Park and Emporia is just down the highway. Can I see your masterpiece when in town visiting?

    • You can donate through GoFundMe if you like!

      And, please let me know if you come to Emporia. I will give you a grand tour of the Cross House!

  20. Ross, it’s off topic but what do you know about terra cotta brick mantels? Ive been curious about them for awhile now but cant find much information about them. For example, what kind of catalog were they ordered from? Do you know of any links to said catalogs? Were they considered high class? As always I appreciate your time and hard work.


  21. This post is so wonderful and detailed and it was lovely to see it again. Getting back to the red tile and the only thing that makes any sense is red/green color blindness, The tile would “look like it belonged but as a contrast.” It would have looked like a contrasting dark tile and not offensive. For example, the garish bright yellow car color looks like gray or beige to a color- blind person. I am convinced that was the issue. However the workman could have been a stark raving lunatic also ???? Also, red/green color blindness would render that lone red tile as appearing to match the woodwork. That is my verdict:-)???? That’s my story and I am sticking to if hahaha

  22. I believe you’re forgetting how the family lived in a house like this. They had servants, who stored the dishes, silver and table linen in the butler’s pantry, close to the dining room. The pantry with the ice box was for the food stuffs, pots and pans and mixing bowls.
    The difference between the glorious decorations on mantels was simply because the “public rooms” were more detailed, to show off the workmanship. The “family” rooms, sitting room, or library were more sedate in decoration. You did notice the difference between the door knobs and surrounds between the family side and servant side. The kitchen was only visited by the wife to supervise.
    You’ve done a wonderful job working on this beautiful home and I wish you all success in your project. Good job.

    • Hi, Jan!

      I am a little confused by your comment.

      I am highly aware of the upstairs/downstairs aspects of the Cross House. So, too, with the differences between the butler’s pantry and the main pantry.

      Also, there is no consistency between the elaborateness of public and private mantels. In the round bedroom, which is private, the mantel is highly elaborate. So, too, with the library mantel. In the dining room, where one would expect a really incredible mantel, the mantel is quite sedate.

      • Ah but Ross, the dining room would have been the focal point for crystal! The china cabinet and matching fireplace is the perfect backdrop for the unused serving pieces. Unlike today, these were highly decorative in their own right. I have a serving bowl from the time period, and even though it is a transfer pattern, it is highly decorative. Imported too, from Slovakia! And “huge” is a relative term; the thing is about a quart serving size. My dad said that his mom used to serve green beans in it…and only green beans. He was born in 1928, so the custom might have been the same at that late period.

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