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)
20th Century Cape Cod Adaptation (e.g., side chimney) on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Photographer: Nivek Neslo / Collection: The Image Bank / 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.

History of Cape Cod Houses

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. 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; 1 or 1½ stories. 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 some 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. 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 and what interior trim there was would be painted white—for purity.

20th Century Adaptations to the Cape Cod Style

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.

During World War II, architects anticipated a building boom after the war. Pattern books 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 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 thirty 4-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.

When Is a Cape Cod a Bungalow Style?

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.

Cape Cod cottage. 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.—Dictionary of Architecture and Construction


  • Cape Cod Houses Recorded by the Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, July 2003
  • Cape Cod Cottage & History of Cape Cod Architecture, Old House Online, August 4, 2010
  • "Royal Barry Wills and the American Colonial Revival" by David Gebhard, Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring, 1992),  The University of Chicago Press, p. 51
  • PDF of "The Enduring Cape Cod House" by Karin Goldstein, Pilgrim Hall Museum,
  • Capelinks.com
  • A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and Lee McAlester, Knopf, 1984, 2013
  • American Shelter: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Home by Lester Walker, Overlook, 1998
  • American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 2002
  • Dictionary of Architecture and Construction, Cyril M. Harris, ed., McGraw-Hill, p. 85
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