Born of practicality and economy, the Cape Cod architectural style evokes a cozy atmosphere without relying on elaborate design or detailing. Its most iconic features arose from the realities settlers faced surviving the Eastern Seaboard stormy weather. Today’s Cape Cods have been updated for modern living, but they’ve held on to the homey simplicity that’s made them an American classic.
From Functional Shelter to Idyllic Retreat
The Cape Cod architectural style developed in two phases, giving rise to two distinct looks. Original Cape Cod style homes were built by English Puritan settlers from 1690 to around 1850. These modest rectangular buildings were designed for easy construction and maintenance, as well as for heating efficiency.
Some key features, such as the large central chimney, were borrowed from the thatched cottages common in England. Other features, such as the steep roofs, were adaptations to New England’s inclement coastal weather.
By 1740, these houses were widespread throughout New England. From there, the style expanded to Eastern, then to Southern and Central New York, and finally to Lake Erie in the west. By 1830, it was catching on in the Midwest, too.
It was around this time the term “Cape Cod house” emerged. The Reverend Timothy Dwight IV, President of Yale University, was taken with the modest charm of these houses during a tour of New England in 1800. In his four-volume work Travels in New England and New York, published starting in 1821, he described the Cape Cod houses he saw, and the name stuck.
Cape Cods in the original style remained popular throughout New England into the mid-1800s, when Victorian houses overtook them. For the next 70 years, they gradually faded from public memory. It was the Colonial Revival period in the 1920s and 1930s that brought the Cape Cod architectural style back into the spotlight.
Boston architect Royal Barry Willis was enchanted with the style and set out to bring its advantages to the nation’s attention. Willis and the associates of his architectural firm modernized the homes by making them larger and better adapted to the needs of early 20th-century living. Willis added detailing, while overall maintaining the exterior’s reserved elegance. The style caught on so well that this more spacious, decorative look is what most think of as the typical Cape Cod house.
The modern Cape Cod’s popularity got another boost during the residential construction boom in the late 1940s and 1950s, when soldiers returning from WWII were looking for simple, practical living spaces. Thanks to their homey appeal, the Cape Cod architectural style was used to build some of the first major housing developments in the 1950s. Still today, these houses are often found in welcoming neighborhoods with tree-lined streets and spacious parks.
Since then, the Cape Cod house, encircled by a white picket fence, has become one of the most iconic architectural styles in America, and its popularity shows no sign of waning.
Cozy Charm That Stands Up to the Elements
Early Cape Cod houses were broad, rectangular, wood-framed structures one room deep and 1 or 1.5 stories. Their exteriors were largely unembellished. Today’s Cape Cods are typically larger and feature a few modern adaptations, but both styles fall into three basic classifications.
Half Cape – Also known as a Single Cape, this is the smallest, simplest of the Cape Cod styles, designed with the front door on one side of the facade and two multi-pane windows on the other. Settlers often started with this style, then built additions as their families grew.
Three-quarter Cape – This style is similar to the Half Cape, but with an added wing and multi-pane window, so the door is flanked by two windows on one side and one on the other. The extra space made it the most popular style of Cape Cod house among settlers, who often built them by adding on to their original Half Cape homes.
Full Cape – These roomy homes feature a central front door flanked by a set of two multi-pane windows on each side, symmetrically placed. Because it mirrors the Half Cape, it’s sometimes known as a Double Cape. Although too costly for most settlers, they became the most popular choice during the 1920s revival movement.
In these modern versions, the kitchen and the second story were expanded. Full Capes are small compared to the typical Colonial Revival-era home, but their snug size is a big part of their appeal.
The original Cape Cod house centered on a large chimney connected to a fireplace in each room. Rooms were arranged around the chimney in a rectangular open floor plan modeled after the traditional English hall. In later adaptations, modern heating methods made fireplaces less important, so the chimneys were reduced in size and moved to one end of the house. In the center of this type of Cape Cod, you’ll find a hallway that divides the house in two.
A steep, side-gabled roof with shallow overhangs is a feature both traditional and modern Cape Cod homes share, and for good reason: they’re efficient at shedding the region’s heavy snowfall. In traditional homes, the ceiling was kept low to conserve heat. The upstairs was often little more than loft space under the roof, and either went unused, or housed children’s or guest rooms.
The gabled dormers so often seen as a quintessential part of the Cape Cod style were only added in during 1920s Revival movement when homeowners wanted the whole second floor available as living space. On a modern Full Cape, dormers are typically located on each side of the chimney to create more space on the upper floor and often contain bedrooms.
Multi-pane, double-hung windows are a classic for both traditional and modern Cape Cods. The shutters that frame them were originally used to keep out the driving wind and rain of coastal storms, but on most modern homes, they’re primarily decorative.
Settlers’ Cape Cod homes were built from pine and oak, then clad in clapboard or cedar shingles. While sometimes painted white, the shingles were more often left unpainted and allowed to weather into the soft, silvery gray that’s become one of the Cape Cod’s most recognizable elements. Because getting this look requires the oxidizing effect of salt air, it doesn’t work well away from the coast, so many inland Cape Cod homes make use of brick, stone, and stucco.
When painted, preferred colors include reserved shades of gray, blue-gray, and buff with light trim, reflecting the sea, sand, and grasses of the coastline.
The minimal detailing of the Cape Cod style appealed to the Puritan value of asceticism while also making the houses cheaper and easier to build and maintain. When Royal Barry Willis revived the style in the 1920s, the era of Art Deco, he updated it for modern tastes with more ornate rake boards under the eaves and trim around the door and windows.
It’s this cozy, welcoming simplicity that’s made the Cape Cod architectural style a symbol of peaceful suburban living around the country. Although it’s designed to weather New England’s storms, with a few adaptations, it can work well in almost any climate.