“The fireplace is the center of any home,” says Mary Jeanne Reese, who has turned her passion for fine antique fireplaces into her life’s work. “People sit around it, place furniture around it-why wouldn’t you want to make your fireplace an absolute showstopper?” she asks. “You get pleasure from it day in and day out. I see it like buying a piece of antique furniture or an important work of art.”
Indeed, the fireplaces Reese sells, reclaimed from grand old buildings in Europe, are works of art themselves. Made of limestone, marble, and hardstone (indigenous to parts of eastern and southeastern France), as well as wood, the surrounds sometimes come with an original metal back plate for the firebox. Reese supplies hearthstones and can build fireboxes from her large supply of reclaimed stone and brick.
Reese’s love for antique architectural elements developed while she was living in Germany in the 1990s. When her then-husband’s job forced the couple back to Chicago, Reese wanted to bring part of that life with her. For their new home in Winnetka, she brought over four surrounds, stone for two floors, and marble for a bathroom. “When people saw it all, they said, ‘How did you do this? Can you do it for me?'”
And so was born Au Coin du Feu (French for “by the fire”) in 2001. Reese’s business is, she believes, the largest in the country devoted entirely to antique fireplace surrounds. At any given time, she has about 3,500 of them available-some in her lovely showroom (470 N. Milwaukee Ave., 312-850-2655; http://www.aucoindufeultd.com/), opened last fall, and many more in her warehouse in Belgium.
They represent the Gothic period (“some of the very first fireplaces”), the Renaissance, and every century up through the 20th. “Louis XIV is probably my favorite period,” she says, “with soft lines and beautiful curves, but not overly styled.” Her vast assortment means there’s likely to be something right for any home. “Louis XVI is often very simple and contemporary. Like Biedermeier furniture, it works with lots of different styles,” she says.
Most of the surrounds are French, though a few are from Belgium and the Netherlands. Reese has a close relationship with her buyers in Europe and returns every year to find pieces for specific clients.
Reese does not mix reproductions with her antiques, as some dealers do. “My whole love and passion in doing this is about bringing the piece of art into someone’s home,” she says. “And you really can’t capture that with a reproduction. The authenticity is part of the buzz for me.”
Reese’s operation differs from other architectural salvage stores that sell antique surrounds in that she works with clients from the time they are starting to renovate until the fireplace is finished and working. What’s more, she can provide a matching hearthstone for every surround she carries. She also stocks antique andirons, fire screens, back plates, and tools.
The authenticity and expertise Reese offers don’t come cheap: Au Coin’s fireplace surrounds start at $8,000, with most in the $10,000-to-$30,000 range. A very rare piece can run even more. “People want a piece of history to create warmth in their home,” she says. “It says, ‘This is a house that has lived and has a story to tell.'”