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Should I expose brick chimney? Why so much empty space inside wall?

Hello, thanks everyone in advance for your comments!

I am renovating an old house from the 1890s in Upper Michigan. At the top of the stairs to the second floor, the chimney runs up through the hallway. When we got the place, the plaster was falling off of this area like crazy. For a while I was planning on replacing it with drywall, but now I am thinking some exposed brick would look really great in that space. 

I took out a little chunk of the wall to see what I would be up against. See attachments. My question is, what does it mean that there is so much empty space inside of this wall? There are several inches of open air between the lath inside of the wall and the bricks. From what I have read, it will make the demo a lot easier, since I am not removing plaster from directly on the bricks, but rather an independent plaster and lath wall that was built up around the chimney. It gives me pause, though, because now I am wondering, is there supposed to be empty space surrounding the chimney in order to prevent a fire hazard, or to prevent air flow problems ...etc. 

Another note, we are currently not using this chimney for anything. The gas appliances are all direct vent out the side of the basement, but we do eventually plan on putting in a woodstove on the 1st floor. 

If anyone has any feedback on this issue, I would surely appreciate it!


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