About the American Cape Cod Style House

Three Centuries of Practical Homes, 1600s to 1950s

20th Century Cape Cod Adaptation on Cape Cod, Massachusetts (side chimney)
The Enduring Cape Cod House Style. Nivek Neslo/Getty Images

The Cape Cod style house is one of the most recognized and beloved architectural designs in America. When British colonists traveled to the "New World," they brought a housing style so practical that it endured through the ages. The modern day Cape Cod houses you see in nearly every part of North America are modeled after the rugged architecture of colonial New England.

The style is a simple one — some may call it primitive with a rectangular footprint and gable pitched roof. You will rarely see a porch or decorative embellishments on a traditional Cape Cod home. These houses were designed for easy construction and efficient heating. Low ceilings and a central chimney kept rooms comfortable during cold winters in the northern colonies. The steep roof helped slough off the heavy snow. The rectangular design made additions and expansions an easy task for growing families.

Fast Facts: Colonial Cape Characteristics

  • Post and beam, rectangular footprint
  • One story with additional half story under roof
  • Side gable roof, fairly steep
  • Center chimney
  • Shingle or clapboard exterior siding
  • Center front door, two double-hung windows on each side
  • Little ornamentation

History

The first Cape Cod style homes were built by Puritan colonists who came to America in the late 17th century. They modeled their homes after the half-timbered houses of their English homeland, but adapted the style to the stormy New England weather. Over a few generations, a modest, one- to one-and-a-half-story house with wooden shutters emerged. Reverend Timothy Dwight, a president of Yale University in Connecticut, recognized these houses as he traveled throughout the Massachusetts coastline, where Cape Cod juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. In an 1800 book describing his travels, Dwight is credited with coining the term "Cape Cod" to describe this prolific class or type of colonial architecture.

Traditional, colonial-era homes are easily identifiable — rectangular shape; moderately steep roof pitch with side gables and a narrow roof overhang; one story of living area with a half story of storage area below the roof. Originally they were all constructed of wood and sided in wide clapboard or shingles. The facade had a front door placed at the center or, in a few cases, at the side — multi-paned, double-hung windows with shutters symmetrically surrounded the front door. The exterior siding was originally left unpainted, but then white-with-black-shutters became the standard later on. Homes of the original Puritans had little exterior ornamentation.

Cape Cods styles smaller than what is known as "double Capes" include the single Cape with a facade of two windows to the side of the front door, and the three-quarter Cape with a front door offset from the center chimney allowing only one window on the short side.

The rectangular interior could be divided or not, with a large central chimney linked to a fireplace in each room. No doubt the first homes would have been one room, then two rooms — a master bedroom and a living area. Eventually there may have been a center hall in a floor plan of four rooms, with a kitchen addition in the back, separated for fire safety. Certainly a Cape Cod house had hardwood floors that replaced original dirt floors, and what interior trim there was would be painted white — for purity.

20th Century Adaptations

Much later, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a renewed interest in America's past inspired a variety of Colonial Revival styles. Colonial Revival Cape Cod houses became especially popular during the 1930s and later.

Developers and architects anticipated a building boom after World War II. Pattern books and catalogs flourished and publications held design competitions for practical, affordable dwellings to be bought by a burgeoning American middle class.

The most successful marketeer who promoted the Cape Cod style is considered to be the architect Royal Barry Wills, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)-educated marine engineer. "Although Wills's designs do indeed breathe sentiment, charm, and even sentimentality, their dominant characteristics are reticence, modesty of scale, and traditional proportions," writes art historian David Gebhard. Their small size and scale exuded "puritanical simplicity" on the outside and "tightly organized spaces" on the inside — a combination that Gebhard likens to the inner workings of a marine vessel.

Wills won many competitions with his practical house plans. In 1938 a Midwestern family chose a Wills design for being more functional and affordable than a competing design by the famous Frank Lloyd Wright. Houses for Good Living in 1940 and Better Houses for Budgeteers in 1941 were two of Wills' most popular pattern books written for all the dreaming men and women waiting for the end of World War II. With floor plans, sketches, and "Dollar Savers from an Architect's Handbook," Wills spoke to a generation of dreamers, knowing that the U.S. government was willing to back up that dream with GI Bill benefits.

Inexpensive and mass-produced, these 1,000-square-foot houses filled a need for the rush of soldiers returning from the war. In New York's famous Levittown housing development, factories churned out as many as 30 four-bedroom Cape Cod houses in a single day. Cape Cod house plans were heavily marketed in the 1940s and 1950s.

Twentieth century Cape Cod houses share many features with their colonial ancestors, but there are key differences. A modern-day Cape will usually have finished rooms on the second story, with large dormers to expand the living space. With the addition of central heating, the chimney of a 20th century Cape Cod is often more conveniently placed at the side of the house instead of the center. The shutters on modern Cape Cod houses are strictly decorative (they can't be closed during a storm), and the double-hung or casement windows are often single-paned, perhaps with faux grills.

As 20th century industry produced more construction materials, exterior siding changed with the times — from traditional wood shingles to clapboard, board-and-batten, cement shingles, brick or stone, and aluminum or vinyl siding. The most modern of adaptations for the 20th century would be the garage facing front so the neighbors knew you owned an automobile. Additional rooms attached to the side or rear created a design that some people have called "Minimal Traditional," a very sparse mashup of the Cape Cod and Ranch style houses.

Cape Cod Bungalow Cottage

Modern-day Cape Cod architecture often mingles with other styles. It is not unusual to find hybrid houses that combine Cape Cod features with Tudor cottage, Ranch styles, Arts and Crafts or Craftsman bungalow. A "bungalow" is a small home, but its use is often reserved for a more Arts and Crafts design. A "cottage" is used more often to amplify the house style described here. The Dictionary of Architecture and Construction defines a Cape Cod cottage as a "rectangular frame house with low one-story eaves, white clapboarded or shingle walls, gabled roof, large central chimney, and front door located on one of the long sides; a style frequently used for small houses in the New England colonies during the18th cent."

The names we attach to our residential architecture is telling of the times. People who live in small Cape Cod styles homes will rarely use the word "cottage" to describe where they live. People of means, however, with enough money to have a summer home, might describe their second (or third) home as a cottage — as happened during the Gilded Age with the mansion-cottages of Newport, Rhode Island and elsewhere.

Sources

  • Baker, John Milnes. American House Styles: A Concise Guide. Norton, 2002
  • capelinks.com. Cape Cod How Can You Recognize an Original Cape Cod Style House?  http://www.capelinks.com/cape-cod/main/entry/how-can-you-recognise-an-original-cape-cod-style-house/
  • Gebhard, David. "Royal Barry Wills and the American Colonial Revival." Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring, 1992), The University of Chicago Press, p. 51
  • Goldstein, Karin. "The Enduring Cape Cod House." Pilgrim Hall Museum. http://www.pilgrimhall.org/pdf/Cape_Cod_House.pdf 
  • Harris, Cyril M. ed. Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. McGraw-Hill, p. 85
  • Library of Congress. Cape Cod Houses Recorded by the Historic American Buildings Survey. July 2003. http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/170_cape.html
  • McAlester, Virginia and Lee. A Field Guide to American Houses. Knopf, 1984, 2013
  • Old House Online. Cape Cod Cottage & History of Cape Cod Architecture. August 4, 2010. https://www.oldhouseonline.com/house-tours/original-cape-cod-cottage
  • Walker, Lester. American Shelter: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Home. Overlook, 1998