Architectural Basics: Cape Cod Houses

By Tema Flanagan

With their simple yet charming design, Cape Cod–style cottages are among the most recognizable and enduring styles of home in the country. Characterized by a rectangular footprint, symmetrical facade, natural wood shingles and clapboard siding, and a steep but low roof with side gables, Cape Cod houses represent a uniquely American architectural expression that has stood the test of time, from the colonial settlements of New England to the present.

The history of Cape Cod houses

Cape Cod houses originated in New England in the seventeenth century, as colonists brought traditional British building techniques and modified them in response to their limited means and harsh weather they encountered in the northern climes of the New World. A rectangular footprint simplified the construction process and allowed for easy additions later on, shingle siding didn’t require painting, the steeply pitched roof helped in shedding snow, and low ceilings—along with a central hearth and chimney—provided effective heating during long, cold winters. The modest houses that emerged from this process were as practical as they were sturdy.

Traditional Cape Cod cottages were typically one to one-and-a-half story, with the interior floor plan revolving around a central living room with a large hearth as the centerpiece. During this time, smaller versions of the now classic “full” Cape (which features a central front door flanked by two sets of two windows) were frequently built, including “half” and “three-quarter” Capes.

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These original Cape Cod houses were built throughout New England up until the mid-19th century, when they began to fall out of favor. It wasn’t until the the 1930s that the style was once again revived as part of the larger Colonial Revival movement. This time around, as WWII-era architects sought modest solutions to meet the booming housing needs they foresaw coming at the War’s end, the Cape Cod house became more popular and widespread than ever before.

One architect in particular, Royal Barry Wills, dedicated himself to creating modernized reproductions of Cape Cod houses and disseminating them via pattern books. Wills is seen as most responsible for popularizing the Cape Cod style in the middle of the twentieth century—and he’s also credited with hewing just closely enough to the correct proportions and details to make them historically resonant. At the same time, mid-century Capes were tweaked to meet the more modern tastes and needs of the era.

National Archives and Records Administration

Cape Cod Plans 1940 federal government plans for a three-quarter house designed by Eleanor Raymond

Classic elements of original Cape Cod houses

Traditional Cape Cod houses typically included the following elements:

  • A compact, rectangular footprint, with the front of the house oriented on the broad side of the rectangle. Traditional Capes rarely include porches
  • Simple, symmetrical design (though half and three-quarter Capes were asymmetrical in terms of door and window arrangements)
  • One to one-and-a-half stories; one-and-a-half story Capes often had an open layout in the upper half-story
  • A low-lying but steeply pitched roof with end gables
  • A large, central chimney reflecting the centrality of the hearth
  • Low ceiling height, with windows often hugging the roofline
  • Wooden shutters
  • Shingle siding, with wooden clapboard siding sometimes used on the front of the house
  • Few if any decorative flourishes
  • If they were painted at all, they were typically painted white with black shutters

Elements of colonial revival Cape Cod houses

While the Revival Capes of the 1930s–1950s retained many of the original elements listed above, they were also modernized in some ways to better meet the needs of twentieth-century families. These newer Capes often include:

  • A true second story with finished rooms upstairs, as well as the addition of dormers to increase second-story light and living space
  • Chimney moved to the side rather than center of the house as a true hearth gave way to central heating
  • Siding materials other than wood shingles and clapboard, including board-and-batten, masonry, and aluminum or vinyl
  • The addition of a front-facing garage
  • Efficient floor plans reflecting mid-century norms rather than being centered around an open hearth

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Modern Cape Cod style

Cape Cod–style homes have remained popular into the twenty-first century. The 1930s and ‘40s saw a revival of the style in the United States thanks to the Cape Cod style being an economical one to build. Some affected by The Depression could still afford to build a simple Cape Cod and then add on later when money was available. Now in the twenty-aughts and beyond, Cape Cods come in every style and price point, from basic to luxury.

Modern takes on the Cape Cod style can be found all over the United States, like this Rhode Island home by the architect James Estes.

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Richard Davis of Richard Drummond Davis Architects in Dallas, Texas, has taken the Cape Cod house to a wonderfully contemporary place, interpreting the simple shape of a Cape Cod. Known for their ability to seamlessly blend period architecture with contemporary sensibilities, it seems only natural that Davis would take on a twenty-first century interpretation of this timeless style. This modern Cape Cod in University Park, Texas, is the perfect marriage of classic American architecture and contemporary polish.

Photo courtesy of Richard Drummond Davis Architects

Richard Drummond Davis Architects Contemporary Cape Cod in University Park, Texas

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