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.
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.