Craig Schuelke’s Forest Hill, Md., basement is a testament to manliness. There’s the Arnold Schwarzenegger pinball machine and about $30,000 of signed Michigan and Maryland sports memorabilia the construction superintendent has enshrined on the walls. An air-hockey table commands one corner, flanked by a pool table, shot-glass collection and dart board.
Wendy Bounds tells Simon Constable and David Weidner why ‘Man Caves’ aren’t just for men anymore.
It’s a quintessential “man cave,” except for one feature: Mr. Schuelke’s wife, Melanie.
The man cave has a secret: Women use them, too. Their new interest comes as these spaces have morphed from cold garage outposts into tricked-out comfy spreads, complete with flat screens TVs, fully stocked bars, arcade games and plush (clean!) furniture.
As a result, men are learning to share with the family while combating the inevitable intrusion of scented candles, flowers and kiddie toys. While couples often cozy up together or party in caves with friends, a growing number of women say they retreat there—even holding the occasional quilting party—without the guys.
The struggling housing market is partly behind the evolution of the man cave into a multipurpose space. Rather than trade up or build on, more homeowners are squeezing the most out of their existing living quarters—but splurging on the decor. As a result, today’s man caves are desirable and even luxurious pads that the whole family wants to enjoy.
An entire marketplace has emerged in recent years to outfit these spaces. There’s Man Cave LLC, modeled after Mary Kay cosmetics, where guys hold barbecue parties dubbed “meatings” to sell steak and cave accoutrements, such as bacon-scented candles and beer pagers to locate lost brew. Online retailers mancavemarket.com and themancaveoutletstore.com hawk essentials, such as beer kegerators, pool tables and Skee-Ball games.
Higher-ticket items make women feel more proprietary over caves, originally intended as spots where guys could be alone or hang with pals, says Mike Yost, who runs cave community site mancavesite.org. “If the guys spend on the big-screen TV and chairs, the wife typically is going to have to sign off on it, too.”
The Juggle: A ‘Man Cave’ of One’s Own
Further stoking female cave envy is cable TV’s “Man Caves” show on the DIY Network. Episodes feature bling such as a pool table that rises out of the floor. “These are really, really nice spaces, and when the guys want to spend time there, the family wants to spend time there,” says Andy Singer, DIY Network’s general manager.
Cushy chairs Not one, but two cupholders are built into this red-hot Coja Malibu recliner for $1,493.
That’s the case in Robert Butterfield’s Sierra Vista, Ariz., home. His retreat is a 400-square-foot homage to Nascar racers Dale Earnhardt and his son. It also sports a 50-inch TV, couch, hundreds of Diecast model cars, even a Christmas tree decked in Earnhardt ornaments—about a $50,000 investment. Mr. Butterfield, 43, calls it “my space,” but it’s often where his wife Maria and sons also congregate when he’s home from his overseas government-contracting job.
Says Mrs. Butterfield, 45: “I enjoy being in there because it’s kind of like a little getaway from the rest of the house. When I’m in there, I’m not reminded about dishes or laundry.” That’s cool with her husband: “Sure, I like time to chill alone, but I started a family because I wanted to be with them.”
Still, the gender cohabitation raises a nettlesome question: When does a man cave stop being a man cave and become just a family room? “There’s a real blurring of the line between man cave and family room,” warns Minnesota decorator Sue Hunter, who runs mancaveinteriors.com. “I think guys are going to start taking charge back in that area.”
And certainly purists remain, such as Tommy “Buck Buck” Sattler of Islip, N.Y., who rigged his 325-square-foot getaway with New York Giants football paraphernalia, seven TVs, a red-oak bar top, and urinal in the bathroom.
Mr. Sattler flips on an outdoor blue light to let the neighbors know when his “underground lounge” is open, but jokes that women, including his wife, typically stop by only if “they are dropping off food or bringing cleaning products.”
Most guys, however, seem game for co-ed caves—so long as there are ground rules, such as no potpourri or decorative pillows. Ms. Hunter, the man-cave decorator, steers clear of big glass vases and baskets in favor of art, she says, that means something to a man, such as “I want to go kill the buck in that picture.”
Then there’s the “no touch” rule that’s reigned in Mr. Butterfield’s Nascar sanctuary since he found his 4-year-old son’s fingerprints on the display cases with his model cars. “It’s a little bit of an ownership thing,” he says. “I’m really detail oriented, and this is the way I want the room.”
Other regulations are trickier to enforce. Karen Dixon gladly turned over her Friendswood, Texas, garage to husband Shawn, even though parking outside means unloading groceries in the rain. “I’m not controlling, and it makes him happy,” she says. Inside, he’s stationed his Harley Davidson motorcycle, a 1967 Cavalier Coca-Cola machine, pay phone painted Harley orange, and heavy-weight punching bag.
The Dixons, both 38, often play cards together in the cave, but she balks at his suggestion that usage is by “invitation” only. “Really? I think that he doesn’t own it,” says Mrs. Dixon, who believes her husband would be secretly “flattered if I brought my friends in there to have crafts and a book club.” Mr. Dixon’s concern: “I’d be afraid something would be moved and I’d never find it.”
The stickiest time can be during cave construction. Mrs. Dixon advises other women to negotiate time limits. “When Shawn is focused on something, it consumes him. Looking back, what I should have done is said, ‘Spend as much time with your family as with the man cave. If you work out there for an hour, then come inside for an hour.’ ”
Indeed, compromise is critical in any man cave negotiation. Married 36 years, Steve and Pam Flaten, both 56, share space in AutoMotorPlex Minneapolis, a compound of high-end garages ranging from 1,000- to 6,500-square feet for fixing up and storing specialty vehicles.
In the loft living area the Flatens constructed inside their garage, Mrs. Flaten typically quilts while her husband tinkers with his race cars below. Recently she held a quilting party.
Despite the domestic influence, Mr. Flaten has stood his ground on certain points. The racing flames on the toilet seat, those get to stay. The flowers she wanted for an end table, those got moved outside.
Women’s interest in the man cave phenomenon is sparking a logical next step: woman caves. The DIY Network is exploring development of a new show around the concept. Retailer HomeGoods just launched a campaign to outfit what it dubs “Mom Caves.”