Reader Question: How Can I Build Symmetrical Bookcases Around This Fireplace?

Matt has had a very difficult last few days, so I haven’t been able to spend a whole lot of time on projects lately. He woke up this morning feeling well, but Wednesdays are the days that I spend at my mom’s house, and then my small group from church, so I don’t see myself getting any work done today, either. So since I don’t have any progress of my own to share, I’ll probably take the next three days to get caught up on some reader questions! Today’s question is from a reader who didn’t leave her name, so I’m going to call her Jan. Just because. 😀 (If you don’t leave your name in your email, I’ll make one up for you. 😀 ) Anyway, her question is about her daughter’s fireplace with asymmetrical brick that she wants to build bookcases around.

Jan’s Question:

My daughter and her family live in a house built in 1963. The living room has a fireplace that is (almost) centered in the room; however, it does not look like it because of the brick. My daughter is wanting bookshelves/cabinets on both sides of the fireplace with the mantel centered. The first 2 photos are from the listing when the house was for sale/empty. The 3rd photo is for reference because she wants the bookcase on the right side of the fireplace to end at the same vertical spot as the opposite living room wall.

We’ve had one person come look at it and he didn’t want to do the project because he thought it would be too hard.
Where would you start? Would you tear out the brick on the left side of the fireplace or build a faux bottom cabinet over it? Any help or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

The Current Fireplace:

So let’s take a look at what Jan and her daughter are working with. The fireplace itself is centered in the room, but as you can see, the brick around the fireplace is very asymmetrical.

On the other end of this room there seems to be an area intended as a dining area.

And here’s the drawing that Jan supplied showing how they want to flank the fireplace with bookcases in order to make it centered in the living room area, with the right side of the right bookcase ending even with the wall of the living room that is opposite the fireplace wall.

My suggestion:

If this were my home, the way that I’d tackle this would depend on may variables.

First, is this your daughter’s forever home? Or do she and her family only plan to be here for a while and then move on? If this is their forever home, then they can tackle this either way based upon their needs. Is symmetry their only goal? Do they need as much storage as they can get? Are they fine with a false front that looks like a cabinet, but actually hides a portion of the hearth?

When you’re dealing with your forever home, the only questions you need to ask are (1) what are my needs, (2) what do I want this to look like, and (3) what shortcuts (if any) am I willing to tolerate?

If they can answer all of those questions and come up with the answer that they’re fine building a false front cabinet over the left portion of that hearth, and that getting the aesthetics that they want (symmetry) is the important goal here, then I’d say go ahead and build a bookcase right over that brick, with a false cabinet front over the brick hearth on the left, and be done with it. That would definitely be the less time-consuming and expensive option of the two.

But if she and her family are going to be selling this house at any time, I’d consider the fact that any potential buyer who sees a false front cabinet covering a hearth might wonder what other corners were cut in the house. I would think that would be a red flag in the mind of a buyer, and would probably bring up a whole lot more questions about the house. That’s just something to consider, in my opinion.

Now with all of that said, I would think through the design a little more, and how this is going to look when it’s finished. The reason I say that is because fireplaces flanked with bookcases are a very common design, but in most of the designs I’ve seen, the fireplace stands out as the dominant feature, while the bookcases are recessed. Here are a few examples.

There are probably thousands more examples like this on Houzz, but I don’t find any where the bookcases are pushed forward and the fireplace is recessed.

In no way am I saying that you shouldn’t do this project as you envision. What I am saying that that before proceeding, I’d find some very clear, finished examples of bookcases flanking a fireplace where the bookcases extend past the fireplace and make the fireplace look recessed, and see if you really like that look.

When there’s a fireplace in a room that extends from floor to ceiling, that fireplace is almost always going to be the focal point of the room. I know some people may disagree with me, but in my mind, bringing those bookcases out and creating a recessed fireplace seems like it may end up looking like a DIY project or an afterthought. But again, I couldn’t find any examples, so what I’m seeing in my mind may be very different from what it actually looks like. All I’m saying is that I’d just be very cautious about jumping into this project with both feet before actually seeing some finished examples and making sure it’s what you want.

Another thing to think through is if that’s a working fireplace (especially a wood-burning fireplace) where there will be real fires going in the winter, do you really want a working fireplace recessed between bookcases built out of wood? I don’t know the building codes when it comes to fireplaces, but I think that probably a main reason we almost never see fireplaces recessed between bookcases, and why they’re always extending into the room past bookcases. That may not just be an aesthetic/focal point issue. It may also be a safety issue.

If this were my living room, I would have the brick removed from the left wall so that the fireplace is symmetrical in the room, and then repair the wall behind so that it matches the rest of the room. (You didn’t mention if they were planning to keep the wood paneling or drywalling, but I’d make it all match.) And then I’d forgo the bookcases, keep the fireplace as the standout focal point of the room (maybe reface it somehow so there’s not quite so much brick, or it’s at least a different color), and then decorate around it so that symmetry is kept with the placement of furniture, like this…

Since the room has no windows flanking the fireplace, that same symmetry could be created with tall decorative mirrors, or coordinating pieces of artwork on both sides.

So to boil down my points:

  • Whether or not you build a bookcase over the brick, or tear out the brick, is completely dependent upon their goals, what they’re willing to live with, whether they’re going to sell the house or stay, and budget.
  • Before jumping into this project, find pictures of finished fireplaces like this, where the bookcases will dominate and the fireplace will be recessed, and really make sure that’s a look you’ll be pleased with.
  • If this were mine, I’d go about this a whole different way, by removing the brick on the left to center the fireplace, refacing or painting the fireplace so it’s not quite so visually heavy and dark, and then creating symmetry in the room with furniture, accessory, and wall decor placement, so that the fireplace can remain the dominant focal point of the room.

Alright, folks! What suggestions do YOU have for Jan?

(Are you stuck with a DIY or decorating problem and want input? Click here to submit your question. I post/answer the questions in the order that they’re received, so please don’t send questions if your contractor is on the way to your house right this minute and you need immediate advice. 😀 )

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