The Origins Of The Cape Cod Style

cape cod style house


“A child’s first drawing of a house is essentially a Cape Cod: a story-and-a-half, gable roof, big chimney emitting welcoming smoke. Ask someone to describe a Cape and invariably they use words like ‘small’, ‘sheltering’, and ‘cozy’.”

-William Morgan, “The Cape Cod Cottage”

Cape Cod style, synonymous with “New England Style”, is one of the most recognized and beloved architectural styles in America.

David Scully described the original cape perfectly in his Forward of “The Cape Cod Cottage”: “The Cape [was] such a simple and direct plan – a central door, hall and stairs, with rooms off to each side. Each room is foursquare with windows on two or three sides. What more do you want? On the second floor there is a bath at the top of stairs and a bedroom off to each side. Windows are located on the side gables, and sometimes dormers give a second source of light and cross ventilation. The form is direct and honest; it cannot be made more modest or quietly symmetrical…. Appearing as a small one story with the second floor tucked up under a decent roof pitch, the Cape is not about strutting one’s size. No wonder this English form sprouted so well in the New England soil and climate. Perhaps puritanically the Cape exposes such minimal skin that it appears stingy to our super-sized culture.”

That’s one of the reasons the Bees love the Cape style. The simplicity in its style: no elaborate moldings or intricate designs. The “trendy” farmhouse style gets its roots in the Cape: from the simple ‘shiplap’ to the board-and-batten wainscoting. (Sorry, Joanna, the Puritans created the Farmhouse first!)

In fact, Scully goes as far as saying, “Architectural clients come bearing their antique Cape with pride, and then want to add a great room, a great kitchen, great closets, and great baths. Pretty soon the Cape is not so great anymore.” While we love the idea of making a Cape contemporary for the modern family, there is something to be said about being happy with what you have and working with that, quality over quantity!

The style (which we’ll refer to as Cape Cod hereinafter) originated in Cape Cod during the early 1800’s. The exterior predominantly uses low, broad, single story frames with a moderately pitched roof (usually a gabled roof). There is typically a central chimney and little ornamentation (again, there’s the simplicity in the style).

It’s true that heredity had something to do with the architecture style of the region. The earliest colonists built what they knew: the Swedes built log cabins along the Delaware, and the Dutch built brick in the Hudson Valley. (Morgan, “The Cape Cod Cottage”) The English, however, built tall, narrow, half-timbered wooden houses. When the Puritans set foot in Massachusetts, they quickly realized that the timber, tall homes would not survive in the harsh winters.

The Puritan Carpenters’ ingenuity was tested; their new design emerged as a solution to a problem. The new houses were lower and more square, designed to withhold heat during the cold winters. Local materials were used, as materials were not easily transported overseas. Cedar was used for roofing and siding while oak and pine were used for framing and flooring. The massive central chimney was designed to offset the chill from the extreme temperatures in the winter time. The roofs were also steeper than their English counterparts: mainly to minimize the snow loads which were not as much of a problem in their homeland. Shutters were installed to ward off the heavy winds that the colonists encountered in the New World.

“Like most good utilitarian design, the simplicity of the early Cape was key to its two hundred year success.” William Morgan, “The Cape Cod Cottage”

Atwood-Higgins House, one of the earliest and long-standing examples of Cape Cod Architecture. Located in Eastham, MA.

Atwood-Higgins House, one of the earliest and long-standing examples of Cape Cod Architecture. Located in Eastham, MA.

The location also affected the longevity of the style. Cape Cod was essentially isolated from the main land; most being built in Plymouth and in Massachusetts Bay. Essentially, the place and the house type became inextricably intertwined.

The term “Cape Cod House” was coined by Reverend Timothy Dwight IV (1752-1817). He was the president of Yale University when he visited the Cape in 1800. His observations of the house style were published posthumously, but the term caught on. Even though Cape Cod was discovered in 1602, not much happened between then and President Dwight’s travels two centuries later. The settlers relied on fishing and farming; the sea being the only provider of bounty at the time. While other ports (Nantucket, New Bedford, Salem) could handle imports and therefore showed off the more ambitious architecture, the Cape remained small and simple.

Did you know that Provincetown didn’t even have a two-story house until 1820?! The Capes didn’t vary much in terms of architecture - they could have three, four, or five bays (also known as half, three-quarter, below, and full Capes). The construction came early to the Puritan Carpenters who were well versed in Barn construction.

Three-quarter Cape, source Old House Journal

Three-quarter Cape, source Old House Journal

The Cape’s most evocative architectural elements were the large chimney and hearth-focused plans (we’ll get into the interiors soon, the Bees favorite for obvious reasons!)

Throughout the years, the Cape was added on to - not up, obviously, but “backward”. To keep the original look of the home, most Capes were added on through rooms extending out the back. Unfortunately, not many completely original Capes remain. But there was one person that is claimed with the Renaissance of the Cape Cod Cottage…..Stay tuned for next week’s post about the rebirth of the modern Cape, who is credited with the modernization, and why we still love this style today. And in a few weeks, we’ll start diving into the interiors and what defines this simple, family-oriented, charming look!

And later this week we’ll be stepping back into Modern day with a post about why our Senior Designer, Kylie, can’t have open shelving. And we’ll want your input on the subject, so get ready!