A Quick Guide to Cape Cod Architecture

A Quick Guide to Cape Cod Architecture

A Quick Guide to Cape Cod Architecture

In 1800, President of Yale University Timothy Dwight IV was traveling in Massachusetts when he noticed the abundance of small simple cottage structures along the coast line of Cape Cod. He was thus the first to call them after their namesake location and to build into the American vernacular that quintessential image of our residential identity.

But the Cape Cod Cottage has a much longer history and was brought to our shores in the 17th century by Puritans from England who built their version of the stone two-room hall and parlor houses to which they were accustomed. Because wood was abundant in the new world, they used this instead of stone to build their homes, homes that bespoke the Puritan ethic. As Barry Goralnick, a New York-based designer who grew up in Cape Cod describes them, “Their origins are practical, simply adorned and designed to stand up to the difficult weather of the climate.”

The simplicity and practicality come in part from Puritan ethos. The 16th-century theologian William Perkins described in “Cases on Conscience” his thoughts on ornamentation when he called on “believers to pay more attention to the “inward” ornament of the soul than the borrowed, outward ornaments of the body.” But the Cape Cod is also a functional architectural form designed to stand up to harsh winter weather and ocean born storms of the area.

The original home design was a simple rectangle built around a central fireplace that could heat the living areas, be used for cooking, and act as a gathering spot. Steep roofs prevented snow accumulation and allowed storm waters to quickly run off. One of the most notable features was the wood shingled roofs and siding that quickly weathered to a gray in storm weathers and that could last several decades. Jordan Sjostrom, a design consultant from New Hampshire discusses the ubiquity of this feature, “9 out of 10 Capes that we remodel are all shake siding. Every once in a while, there will be a house with lap, which is usually in a very narrow reveal of about 4 inches.”

The Cape Cod went out of style in the 1800s, but we can thank architect Royal Barry Willis for their reintroduction in the early 20th century.  Willis created modernized versions that he distributed widely in pattern books in recognition of the need for affordable housing for the boom he saw as inevitable after World War II. Perhaps, more importantly, his designs remained faithful enough to the original style that they took on the historical resonance that has made them a uniquely American structure.

The modern Cape Cod has held true to the rectangular structure and has nearly doubled in size from the cottages that often held two rooms on the first floor. The contemporary “Full Cape Cod” has four rooms on each floor” and often includes extensions off the central structure. It still maintains the steep pitched roofs, but the central chimney is usually repositioned on the side of the house. The dormers that many believe are key to the original Capes are actually a new addition to the modern version, but do mark the style.

Today’s Cape Cod may have moved away from the shingle structure of the 1600s, using instead more durable sidings or stucco, but they still stand as testament to simplicity, durability, and function. And its simple basic structure has given rise to what architect Kevin Lichter argues as “a flexibility in how it can be configured.” We thus continue, some four centuries later, to return to this basic but beautiful design as an American home of choice.

Ivan Young is a writer in partnership with wrought iron door manufacturer, Abby Iron Doors. 

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