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A Brief History of Cape Cod Design

CEO Khai Intela
Cape Cod design has a rich history that spans several centuries. These charming and practical houses have stood the test of time, evoking feelings of warmth, comfort, and a sense of home. In this article,...

Cape Cod design has a rich history that spans several centuries. These charming and practical houses have stood the test of time, evoking feelings of warmth, comfort, and a sense of home. In this article, we will explore the origins and evolution of Cape Cod design, from its humble beginnings to its enduring popularity today.

The Two Styles of Capes

There are two distinct styles of Cape Cod houses: the originals and the Colonial Revival Capes of the 20th century. The original Cape Cods, built between 1690 and 1850, were modest and practical. Often referred to as half or three-quarter Capes, these homes featured shingle-clad exteriors and were strategically positioned to capture sunlight. The interiors of these houses were centered around a hearth-warmed kitchen, embodying a sense of warmth and simplicity.

In contrast, the Colonial Revival Capes of the 20th century embraced a more homey feel. These houses, typically full Capes, were symmetrical in design and often adorned with white picket fences. With their clapboarded and shuttered exteriors, painted white, and more flexible floor plans, these houses exuded a sense of nostalgia and charm.

Full Cape with accretions, ca. 1750 and later, Truro, Cape Cod, Mass. Full Cape with accretions, ca. 1750 and later, Truro, Cape Cod, Mass. - Taylor Lewis

A History of the Cape Cod House

The term "Cape Cod House" was first used by Yale College president Timothy Dwight in 1800 during a visit to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. By that time, the Cape Cod design had already spread throughout New England, including New York's Long Island. As settlers moved westward, the Cape Cod house became a popular choice in central New York, around Lake Erie, and eventually into Ohio and Michigan.

Regional variations of the Cape Cod design emerged in Massachusetts and Connecticut, incorporating gambrel and bowed roofs for additional headroom, as well as small dormers to bring in more natural light. As the house style made its way westward, Greek Revival details became popular additions. The earliest Cape Cod houses featured simple and spare interiors, often furnished with pine.

An 18th-century original Cape Cod design cottage. An 18th-century original Cape Cod design cottage - Greg Premru

Although Victorian styles overshadowed the Cape Cod houses for a time, they experienced a resurgence during the Colonial Revival in the 1930s. These revived Cape Cods were often larger than their predecessors and featured different framing methods, interior plans, staircases, and details. Today, the Cape Cod design is widely recognized as one of the most iconic house styles in America.

Hallmarks of Cape Cod Design: Side-gabled, Single Pitch

The Cape Cod design is characterized by several distinct features:

  • Steep Roof: The side-gabled roof with a single pitch is a defining characteristic of Cape Cod houses.
  • Center Chimney: Early examples of Cape Cod houses often featured a center chimney, which was ubiquitous during that time.
  • Shingle-sided: Cape Cod houses are typically shingle-sided, though clapboard may be used on the front facade with shingles elsewhere.
  • Unornamented: With the exception of the entry door, Cape Cod houses are generally unornamented. The entry door may feature simple transoms, fanlights, pilasters, or sidelights. Greek Revival trim became popular in later examples.
  • Windows: In early Cape Cod houses, windows often extend to the roofline, indicating the low ceiling height.

Variations of the Cape

There are several variations of the Cape Cod design:

Full Cape (or Double Cape) Full Cape (or Double Cape) - Illustration: Rob Leanna

  • Full Cape (or Double Cape): Considered the quintessential Cape Cod house, full Capes were rare in the 18th century. They featured steep pitched roofs and symmetrical five-bay facades with a grand entrance door centered on a massive chimney.

Three-Quarter Cape Three-Quarter Cape - Illustration: Rob Leanna

  • Three-Quarter Cape: Although less commonly found in later Cape Cod revivals, the three-quarter Cape was a popular style in 18th and early 19th-century New England. In these houses, the entry was slightly offset from the chimney.

One-Half Cape (or Single Cape) One-Half Cape (or Single Cape) - Illustration: Rob Leanna

  • One-Half Cape (or Single Cape): The half Cape, often referred to as a starter house, evolved into three-quarter and full Capes over time as families grew. These houses can still be found throughout New England.

Inside the Cape

The interior of a traditional Cape Cod house is centered around the keeping room, which serves as the kitchen, living, and family room. In a typical full Cape, the keeping room has seven doors. The back door leads to the storage pantry, while the other doors open to various bedrooms, parlors, and additional rooms. These houses were characterized by their simplicity, with pine floors and furnishings being common. Later influences brought Greek Revival details, oriental rugs, and china.

A floor plan for a typical Cape Cod home. A floor plan for a typical Cape Cod home.

Recommended Reading

If you're interested in learning more about Cape Cod design, here are some recommended books:

  • The Cape Cod Cottage by William Morgan: This book offers an in-depth exploration of the original Cape Cod houses, accompanied by archival and modern photographs.

  • A Book of Cape Cod Houses by Doris Doane: Dive into the history of Cape Cod houses, from the wind-beaten shingled dwellings in New England to the postwar building boom. Floor plans, rooms, and exteriors are illustrated with pencil drawings.

  • The Cape Cod House by Stanley Schuler: This book traces the development of Cape Cod houses, from the original New England designs to the multi-winged versions of the 20th century.

  • Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn by Thomas C. Hubka: Explore rural houses and farmsteads, including those with a Cape at the center. This fascinating book provides insights into vernacular architecture of the early 19th century.

Cape Cod design has a timeless appeal that continues to captivate homeowners and architecture enthusiasts alike. Whether you admire the simplicity of the originals or the nostalgic charm of the Colonial Revival Capes, there's no denying the enduring allure of this iconic house style.