You sometimes don't noticed the clues when you are as close to the wall as I am. The other day I did notice the outline of the edge of something just above the fireplace mantel. But since I couldn't figure out what it was until I removed more paint...I just put that on the back burner.
I really made a lot of progress today. I needed to take a break and R wanted my help holding something in place while he did his thing. It hit me like a ton of bricks when I walked back into the living room. This is not the original mantle. It's making sense now. This fireplace was probably like the one in our bedroom.....a large stucco fireplace with a decorative tile surround and hearth.
Upon close inspection the center portion above the mantel is most certainly new because it is made of drywall and wood. You can see the outline of the top of the old mantle just above the current mantle on the left side. See that large area that I haven't removed yet? Well that is really deep. Probably where the stucco had to be broken out for the new mantle.
But there is more. See that circle area off toward the top and the small rectangle below it? There was a sconce and possibly a light switch. The sconce hole still has the wire sticking out of it. It's not active but again rather than remove it, they just left it and moved on.
My plan is to finish this wall before Christmas. I do not have to remove paint from the center portion because there is very little paint to remove.