Gender and Virginia’s Early-Twentieth Century Equine Landscapes

The thoroughbred breeding complex at North Wales

I first explored the topic of historic thoroughbred landscapes for my honors thesis in historic preservation while a student at the University of Mary Washington. While my more recent research as the Sally Kress Tompkins Fellow has superseded this research in some ways, this thesis has continued to raise many thought provoking questions for me. I intend to continue my exploration of gender, the thoroughbred industry, and the built environment in my dissertation.

Entrance to the training barn at Burrland Farm

I found that in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, nouveau riche families moved to the foothills of Virginia. These Gilded Age elites purchased old plantations and converted them into hobby farms. Because horse racing was such an integral part of their social life and culture, the elites built thoroughbred breeding and training farms. Elite women increasingly participated in the male-dominated fields of race horse ownership and breeding as part of the expansion of women’s gender roles during the 1920s and 1930s.

Prefabricated Sears and Roebuck training barn at Mount Sharon

Little scholarly attention has been given to equine structures as manifestations of gender on the built environment. Five case studies at Montpelier, Brookmeade Stable, North Wales, Mount Sharon, and Burrland Farm examine the settings and layouts of the equine complexes, as well as the aesthetics and interior layouts of the stables. The case studies reveal that men used the public visibility and stylistic treatments of their racing stables and stud barns to serve as statements of their masculinity and competitiveness. Paralleling their challenge to traditional gender roles barring women from horse breeding, women owners placed their broodmare barns in locations of prominence to claim their place as expert breeders in the thoroughbred industry.

Brookmeade Stable stallion barn

Because these landscapes are often overshadowed by the properties’ mansion houses, their historical significance is often overlooked by owners, scholars, and institutions. This study encourages preservationists to reevaluate their approach to preserving these layered landscapes. The evaluation of the influence of gender on the landscape contributes to understandings of women’s history and their contributions to the built environment, changing narratives about the extent of male domination in the thoroughbred racing industry.

Montpelier broodmare barns