Traditional Kiva fireplaces are amongTaos’ more picturesque features, portrayed in paintings and postcards. Their earthy beauty has been, for a long time, part and parcel of the town’s charm.
A pioneer fireplace builder is Carmen Velarde, a native Taoseña and an acclaimed artist who also made retablos andsantos—images of saints carved in wood. Velarde is now a lively eighty–year-old. Her fireplaces, which she built not only inTaosbut all over the country, can be admired at theSageBrushInnConferenceCenterand at Quality Inn, as well as in many private homes. They are made of adobe and follow a traditional construction style.
Velarde learned how to build fireplaces from her grandparents, Trinidadand Julian Ybarra, who raised her. “They remodeled houses and built fireplaces and hornos (ovens),” she said. “They also knew how to make bricks. I helped them since I was a little girl and that was how I learned all I know today.” Later on, she became a builder herself. She used no paint in her fireplaces, just different kinds of earth like tierra colorada and tierra blanca (red and white earth) and tanners. Using the traditional methods and materials was a need, not a choice.
“Until the fifties, we didn’t have a lot of construction materials here, except for adobes,” she said. “Few people had iron wood stoves. In my own family, we cooked in a fireplace until I was 8 or 9 years old.”
What distinguishes Velarde’s fireplaces is the artistic touch that she added to them. They are all handmade, one-of-a-kind structures. She also built bancos and niches to suit her clients’ wishes.
Velarde paid great attention to safety issues. After building a fireplace, she would teach the owners how to keep it in working order. “If you have a fireplace, the most important thing is to keep the chimney clean,” she said. “Make sure that you clean it at least once a year, or two if possible. If the fireplace needs plaster, all you need to do is apply a coat of slip.”
Carmen Velarde’s fireplaces are known for their energy efficiency, but this is not the case of many traditionally built fireplaces, according to Bob Bishop, owner of Tierra Wood Stoves.
“With a traditional fireplace, 90 percent of the heat goes out,” said Bishop. “All the heat you pay for, be it propane or natural gas, is being sucked out of the house.”
If people want to add the touch of a warm hearth to the house, he suggests getting a wood stove instead. “You can add one that looks just like a Kiva fireplace, or choose amongNew England, Danish and American Federal Period styles,” he said. “We have sixty models of fireplaces and wood stoves in our showroom. And if you already have a fireplace, use either an insert or a hearth heater that sits in front of it. This way you can keep your existing fireplace, save money and enjoy a comfortable, cozy atmosphere.”
Bishop recommends hiring a certified installer to add the insert or the hearth heater. “We use Southwest Chimney Specialists, a local man who is certified and very good at it,” he said. “This isn’t necessarily a project that you want to do yourself.”
He also suggests cleaning the chimney once a year to avoid the danger of fire. “But don’t take the ashes out too often,” he said. “It is advisable to keep half an inch or even an inch of ashes so the stove is insulated and easy to light.”
Ashes can be used to clean the glass on the fireplace or stove door. Take a paper towel, make it into a ball, damp it, dip it on the ashes and clean the door with a circular motion. “Of course, you can buy a product that does the same thing,” he added. “We have it in our store. It’s basically ashes in a bottle.”
Both traditional fireplaces and modern wood stoves add a feeling of warmth and coziness to any house. Whichever you have, or choose to add, make sure to keep the chimney clean and in working order. The best fireplace or wood stove is the one that doesn’t burn the house down!Tierra Wood Stoves is located at 1519 Paseo Del Pueblo Sur Taos, NM. Phone: 575-758-9880.