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Filoli House and Gendered Spaces

Categories: Blog

Drawing rooms were always associated with privacy and limited access. The name derives from its earlier counterpart, ‘withdrawing rooms.’ It was in these rooms that elite, early American families and their guests developed a pageantry of manners and formal civility; rituals that helped separate them from the rest of society. Then, in the nineteenth century, drawing rooms became solely associated with females.

Filoli’s drawing room once donned buttery-yellow, linen wall coverings and fuschia-colored sofas. It still exhibits an original, oversized Adams-style mirror and a dainty Carrara-marble fireplace, the smallest in the house. Thirty mezzotints and engravings hang salon-style around the room in gold frames; the images were of children, women and gardens — nothing unsavory. It was in this room that female visitors would retire with Agnes Bourn after dinner, leaving the men in the dining room to smoke and drink freely, talk politics and conduct business. Nextdoor, the ladies discussed music and society events while domestic staff served them coffee or tea.

Wealthy, post-Victorian Americans were obsessed with gendered spaces. Domestic advice writers outlined proper divisions in the home; some rooms were meant for male-use and others for female. Advice books and catalogs exhibited photographs and articles guiding buyers and builders on decoration, furnishings and room placement. Traditional male spaces included the study, library, dining room, billiard room and smoking room. Females occupied the drawing room, morning room and bedroom. The decor of these spaces were meant to reveal the inner world of its inhabitants. Male rooms were dark and wild, filled with animal heads, exotic textiles and sturdy, dark wooden furniture. Female spaces were light and airy, filled with gilded decor and bright colors. Design formed around exaggerated ideas of European identity. Male rooms were meant to look English and stoic, female rooms French and effeminate.

At Filoli, masculine spaces are denoted overtly with dark wood. The study and dining room floors and walls are stained oak. The extravagant library features carved American black walnut paneling and a chevron patterned parquet floor, transported at an expense from the East Coast. On the north-side of the house William Bourn placed his study and home office next to his gentlemen’s lounge. From the windows he could see his enterprise: Spring Valley Water Company. Directly upstairs Agnes had her counterpart, a sitting room decorated with feminine artwork, furniture, and a marble fireplace, glittering with crushed semi-precious stones. It was from this room that Agnes conducted her own business, writing letters at a large desk, coordinating the ballroom design with New York/Paris based artist Ernest Peixotto, and the purchase of many beautiful antiques from European auctions using her daughter/buyer who lived in Ireland.

Historians differ on how to interpret female empowerment within the landscape of domestic gender separation in the late nineteenth/early twentieth-centuries. Many historians conclude segregation diminished female authority by cutting off access to information. Others have argued that lady advice writers at the time promoted female rooms as a sort of power-source; women attaining near-complete autonomy over certain territory in the house, as well as designating space for female groups to gather and organize.

Whether or not women at the time saw these rooms as sanctuaries of female agency (on the eve of the 19th Amendment no less), the fact remains that drawing rooms were only available to wealthy, white women. In fact, designing a home with a multitude of sex-specific rooms hinges on an owner’s capability to finance a substantially sized building. The Bourns had no shortage at Filoli house with 54,256 square-feet.

Perhaps most interesting of all is that Filoli, built in the throes of World War I, seems to fly in the face of another movement in American architecture at the time: the California bungalow. A local, burgeoning craze in domestic architecture, the bungalow’s simple design promoted space-sharing and therefore participation across gender lines. Meanwhile, Filoli’s designers reached to the past for inspiration. Formal, stuffy, furniture-packed rooms echoed the estates of 18th-century English gentry more than 20th century Americans. Perhaps it is not surprising that Filoli lacks an ounce of influence from the popular California bungalow. These relaxed, open-air homes would have represented a threat to the Bourn’s elite status; namely, the rise of the suburban middle-class.