Cape Cod (house)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is about the architectural style. For other uses, see Cape Cod (disambiguation).
Cape Cod–style house c. 1920

A Cape Cod is a style of house originating in New England in the 17th century. It is a low, broad, frame building, generally a story and a half high, with a moderately steep, pitched roof with end gables, a large central chimney and very little ornamentation. Traditional Cape Cod houses were very simple: symmetrically designed with a central front door surrounded by two multi-paned windows on each side. Homes were designed to withstand the stormy, stark weather of the Cape. Modern Cape Cod architecture still draws from colonial designs.


The Cape Cod style (and in turn its Colonial Revival descendant of the 1930s–50s) originated with the colonists who came from England to New England. They adapted the English Hall and parlor house, using local materials to best protect against New England's notoriously stormy weather. Over the next several generations emerged a 1- to 1 12-story house with wooden shutters and clapboard or shingle exterior.

The Reverend Timothy Dwight IV (1752–1817), president of Yale University from 1795–1817, coined the term "Cape Cod House" after a visit to the Cape in 1800.[citation needed] His observations were published posthumously in Travels in New England and New York (1821–22).[1]

Climate influences[edit]

The settlers designed houses that provided safety from New England’s extreme winter climate. Temperatures in January and February can drop to -20 degrees Fahrenheit, and multiple-feet snow pile-ups occur frequently.[2] To fight the chill, they built massive central chimneys and low ceilinged rooms to conserve heat. The steep roof characteristic of New England homes also prevented excessive amounts of snow from accumulating on the house. Finally, the Pilgrims dealt with stormy winds by installing shutters on the windows. Shutter are now more often for aesthetics than function.

Natural resource influences[edit]

Isolated from Europe, early New Englanders used local resources for building materials. Colonists made shingles out of cedar, and used pine flooring.[3]

Colonial and Federal Capes (17th century–early 19th century)[edit]

A classic Cape Cod style farmhouse in Brockton Heights, Massachusetts.
Harlow Old Fort House, an example of the rarer Gambrel-roofed Cape

Colonial-era Capes were most prevalent in the Northeastern United States and Atlantic Canada. They were made of wood, and covered in wide clapboard or shingles. Most houses were smaller, usually 1,000–2,000 square feet in size. Colonial-era Capes did not have dormer windows (unlike revivals). There were generally an odd collection of windows in the gable ends, and in these windows nine and six panes were the most common.

The style has a symmetrical appearance with front door in the center of the house, and a large central chimney for fireplaces in each room. A cape-style house also commonly had a master bedroom on the first floor and an unfinished loft on the second floor. A typical early house had little or no exterior ornamentation, although many built during the Greek Revival featured an entablature with corner pilasters, pedimented gable ends, and a pilaster-and-lintel entry with sidelights.[4]

Framing and layout[edit]

1940 federal government plans for a three-quarter house designed by Eleanor Raymond.

Although a few late examples of early capes used stud framing, and plank frame was also used, the overwhelming majority of early capes were timber framed, with three bays formed by four bents. The two outboard bays were generally noticeably wider than the central hall bay. This influenced design of smaller versions of the cape.

The first Cape Cod houses fall into four categories: the quarter, half, three-quarter, and full Cape. The comparatively rare quarter cape is a single bay, usually a wider "outside" bay that would become rooms. It has a single door and a single window on the front, but is full depth. The half Cape is two bays, with a door to one side of the house and two windows on one side of the door; the three-quarter Cape has a door with two windows on one side and a single window on the other, while the full Cape consists of a front door in the center of the home, flanked on each side by two windows.[5] Otherwise, the three categories of early Cape Cod houses were nearly identical in layout. Inside the front door, a central staircase led to the small upper level, which consisted of two children’s bedrooms.[5] The lower floor consisted of a hall for daily living (including cooking, dining, and gathering) and the parlor, or master bedroom.[6]

Some use a different naming system, and call the full-size version a "double cape," but this is used more often for an extended duplex structure.

"High post," also known as "kneewall," capes were originally an uncommon variant, but became more so into the 19th century, and became a feature of cape-derived vernacular architecture in the Midwest. The posts extend vertically past the first floor, increasing usable space on the second floor and simplifying joinery, at a cost of structural rigidity. The kneewall was often fenestrated with small low windows.[7]

Exterior design[edit]

External walls of classic Cape Cod houses are often covered with unpainted shingles. After long exposure, the wood turns grey. The houses usually lack front porches, although modern Capes sometimes include screened-in porches located to one side of the home. The windows of the home are surrounded by shutters that either match the front door or are painted white.

Modern adaptations[edit]

The houses of early New England settlers seem distantly related to modern Cape Cod–style homes and cottages found throughout the country. While the original half, three-quarter, and full Cape styles are still common, homeowners experimented over the years by doubling the full Cape and adding new wings onto the rear end.[6] Homeowners also added roof dormers for increased space, light, and ventilation. Despite the changes, 1 12-story Capes are still a popular, affordable style on the housing market.[8]

Revival of the Cape[edit]

Colonial Revival Capes (1930s–1950s)[edit]

Colonial Revival Cape Cod houses are very similar to Colonial Cape Cod houses, but some have the chimney at one end of the living room on the side of the house. High end replicas were designed by traditional architects, for example Boston architect Royal Barry Wills (1895–1962). For the less affluent, planned communities like Levittown, New York offered Cape Cod styled tract housing, particularly to soldiers returning from World War II.[9]

Influence of Royal Barry Wills[edit]

Royal Barry Wills became the most popular architect in America after World War II because of his role in modernizing the Cape and promoting an appealing living option for middle-class families.[10] After the Great Depression, Wills focused on designing small, 1,000-square-foot (93 m2) Colonial Revival houses. Rather than reproducing traditional Cape Cod–style homes, Wills refigured the design to include modern amenities that addressed demands for increased privacy and technology, including bathrooms, kitchens, and garages.[11] The simplicity, functionality, and livability of the first Cape Cod houses remained prevalent features of Wills’ updated design. Wills published eight books and numerous magazine articles about architecture, which helped spread his modern Cape design throughout the country. Wills’ work stood in stark contrast to the Modernist architectural movement adopted by his peers.[12] While urban architecture pushed skyward, dominated by larger-than-life skyscrapers, Wills downsized architecture and allowed human scale to define his work. While his Colonial Revival house targeted a less prestigious market than other Modernist architects, the work of Royal Barry Wills continues to profoundly impact the middle-class housing market.[12]

Cape Ann houses[edit]

A related type, gambrel roofed, less deep, and often dormered, evolved on Cape Ann, Massachusetts.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York, William Baynes and Son, London, 1823
  2. ^ "Winter in New England." New England Travel Planner.
  3. ^ Ballinger, Barbara. "Cozy Cape Cods." Realtor Mag 01 May 2007.
  4. ^ How To Recognize an Original Cape Cod Style House
  5. ^ a b Ross, Chuck. "Cape Cod-Style Houses: The Colonists' "Starter Homes"." HGTV Pro.
  6. ^ a b Pilgrim Hall. Pilgrim Hall Museum, 18 May 2005.
  7. ^ "New Hampshire Architectural Survey Manual" (PDF). Retrieved 4 December 2015. 
  8. ^ - "Cape Cod Home Architecture and Design Features." Rafter Tales.
  9. ^ Pilgrim Hall Museum, The Cape Cod House
  10. ^ Wilson, Richard. The Colonial Revival House. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, 2004.
  11. ^ HPRO_20174_5384502,00.html>. - "Royal Barry Wills & the History of the Firm." Royal Barry Wills Associates, inc
  12. ^ a b Floyd, Margaret. Architectural Education and Boston Centennial Publication of the Boston Architectural Center. Boston, MA: Boston Architectural Center, 1989.

External links[edit]