Small, economical, and practical, the Cape Cod style house was built all across America during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. But Cape Cod architecture began centuries before in colonial New England. This photo gallery shows a variety ofCape Cod houses, from simple colonial Cape Cods to modern-day versions.
Old Lyme, Connecticut, 1717
As historian William C. Davis has written, "Being a pioneer is not always as rewarding as nostalgia...."As the colonists settled into their new lives in a new land, their dwellings quickly enlarged to accommodate more and more family members. Original colonial houses in New England are more often 2 stories than the traditional 1 or 1½ story homes we call Cape Cod. And many of the homes we call Cape Cod style areactually found on Cape Ann, northeast of Boston.
Remembering that the original colonists of the New World took the journey because of freedom of religion, we should not be surprised at the Puritan-stark nature of America's first homes. There were no dormers. The center chimney warmed the entire house. Shutters were made to actually close over the windows. Exterior siding was clapboard or shingle. Roofs were shingle or slate. The home had to function in the heat of summer and bone-chilling New England winters. Today's mid-century Cape Cod style has evolved from this.
Modest Mid-Century Style
The variety of Cape Cod house styles is enormous. The styles of doors and windows seem to be different on every home. The number of "bays" or openings on a facade vary. The house shown here is a five-bay, with shutters on the windows and the doorway—architectural details that define a homeowner's personal style. The side chimney and one-car attached garage are telling details for the age of this home—a time when the middle class flourished and prospered.
The Nostalgia of the Cape
The appeal of the Cape Cod style home is its simplicity. For many, that absence of ornamentation translates into a great Do-It-Yourself project with the associated financial savings—save money by building your own house, just like the pioneers of America!
Cape Cod house plans for 1950s America was a marketing scheme for a booming housing market. Just like the dream we have of the seaside cottage, the soldiers coming back from World War II had the dream of families and home ownership. Everyone knew Cape Cod, nobody had heard of Cape Ann, so developers invented the Cape Cod style, loosely based on reality.
But it worked. Its design is simple, compact, expandable, and, for mid-20th-century developers, the Cape Cod could be prefabricated. Most of the Cape Cod houses we see today are not from the Colonial era, so they are technically revivals.
Long Island, 1750
In reality, the history of what we call the Cape Cod style is not a pure and simple revival story, but more of a survival story. European immigrants to the New World brought building skills with them, but their first dwellings were more Primitive Hut than bold, new architectural style. The first houses in the New World, like in the settlement at Plimoth, were simple post-and-beam shelters with one opening—a door. Settlers used the materials at hand, which meant one-story houses of white pine and dirt floors. They quickly realized that their own ideal of the English cottage would have to be adapted to the extremes of the New England climate.
On the colonial East Coast, Cape Cod homes were heated by a single fireplace with a chimney rising from the center of the house. The Samuel Landon house shown here was built in 1750 in Southold, New York on Long Island, a boat-ride from Cape Cod. The house originally on this site was built c. 1658 by Thomas Moore, who was originally from Salem, Massachusetts. When colonists moved, they took architectural design with them.
The American Cape Cod house style is often considered the first American independent style. Of course, it isn't. Like all architecture, it is a derivative of what has come before.
The most obvious difference between today's Cape Cod style and an equivalent true colonial home is the addition of the dormer. Unlike the American Foursquare or other Colonial Revival house styles with one centered dormer on the roof, a Cape Cod style will often have two or more dormers.
Dormers come in all shapes and sizes, however. When dormers are added to an existing house, consider the advice of an architect to help choose an appropriate size and optimal placement. Dormers can end up looking too small or too large for the house. An architect's eye for symmetry and proportion will be a huge help when adding dormers.
Georgian and Federal Details
Pilasters, sidelights, fanlights and other Georgian and Federal or Adam style refinements decorate this historic Cape Cod home in Sandwich, New Hampshire.
Cape Cod style homes of the 20th century are often more than revivals—they are evolutions of the plainness and lack of ornamentation of Colonial American homes. Entry door sidelights (the narrow windows on either side of the door frame) and fanlights (the fan-shaped window above the door) are great additions for homes today. They aren't from a colonial era, but they bring natural light to interiors and enable occupants to see the wolf at the door!
Like the homes at Plimoth Plantation, the landscape of the traditional Cape Cod home often includes the picket fence or gate. But traditions are difficult to keep pure. Many of the homes of the past have been modified through architectural details or building additions. When does one style become another? Exploring the meaning of architectural style can be challenging in a country like the United States with a population of diverse backgrounds.
Rain on the Cape
This old home in Chatham on Cape Cod must have had its share of roof drips over the front door. More formal homeowners may take a Classical approach and install a pediment over the front door—and maybe some pilasters — not this New Englander.
This Cape Cod home seems very traditional—no dormers, a center chimney, and not even any window shutters. Upon a closer look, in addition to a shed-like front door shelter, rain and snow can be redirected away from the house by gutters and downspouts and window lintels. For the practical New Englander, architectural detail is often for very practical reasons.
This home may have a picket fence in the front yard, but don't be fooled when calculating the age of this structure. The recessed entryway is an architectural solution to the rain-dripping and snow-melting problems of traditional Cape Cod designs. This 21st century home is the perfect blend of tradition and modernity. That's not to say that some pilgrim didn't think of this solution first.
Adding Tudor Details
A temple-like portico (porch) with a steep pediment gives this Cape Cod-style house the appearance of a Tudor Cottage.
The entrance vestibule is often an add-on to a colonial-era home and by design for a newer home. "Sometimes, in tearing down or altering an old house, the attachment of these vestibules to the house, and particularly in their under-floor and roof construction, becomes definite and plain," writes the Early American Society in Survey of Early American Design. The vestibule, which added interior space where most needed, was very popular in the early part of the 1800s (1805-1810 and 1830-1840). Many were Tudor pitched as well as Greek Revival, with pilasters and pediments.
Cape Cod Symmetry
The sign on the front says "Bassett House 1698," but this house at 121 Main Street in Sandwich, Massachusetts has had some curious remodeling. It looks like an old Cape Cod, but the symmetry is wrong. It has the large center chimney, and the dormer was probably a later addition, but why is there one window on one side of the front door and two on the other side? Perhaps it originally had no windows, and they inserted what is called "fenestration" when they had the time and money. Today, an arbor around the door hides many of the design decisions. Perhaps the homeowners have heeded the words of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright: "The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his clients to plant vines."
Cape Cod style characteristics may be obvious, but how they are implemented affects the aesthetics—the beauty of the house, or how it looks to you and your neighbors. Where are the dormers on the roof? How large are the dormers in relation to the rest of the house? What materials (including colors) are used for the dormers, windows, and front door? Are the windows and doors appropriate for the historic period? Is the line of the roof too close to the doors and windows? How is the symmetry?
These are all good questions to ask before you buy or build your first Cape Cod house.
Patterned Brick and Slate
Patterned brickwork, diamond-paned windows, and a slate roof can give a 20th century Cape Cod the flavor of a Tudor Cottage home. At first glance, you might not think of this house as a Cape Cod—especially because of the brick exterior. Many designers use the Cape Cod as a starting point, embellishing the style with features from other times and places.
An unusual feature of this home, besides the slate roof and brick exterior, is the small, single window we see to the left of the door. As the symmetry is thrown off by this opening, this one window may be located in a stairway leading to a full second floor.
A Facade of Stone Siding
The owners of this traditional 20th century Cape Cod house gave it a brand new look by adding mock stone facing. Its application (or misapplication) can drastically affect the curb appeal and charm of any home.
A decision by every homeowner located in the snowy northern environs is whether or not to put a "snow slide" on the roof—that shiny metal strip that heats up with the winter sun, melting roof snow and preventing ice build-up. It may be practical, but is it ugly? On a Cape Cod house with side gables, the metal border on the roof looks anything but "colonial."
The Beach House
Anyone who was raised in the American Northeast has held fast a dream—the little cottage on the beach in the form of what's become known as the Cape Cod.
The architectural style of the first houses near and on Massachusetts' Cape Cod, like what you can see at Plimoth Plantation, 404 has long been the starting point for designing the American home. The architecture defines a people and a culture—unadorned, functional, and practical.
The final addition to the stark design of the Cape Cod style house is the front porch, which has become as traditional an element as the weathered shingle siding or the dish antennae. The style of Cape Cod is America's style.
- Historical Introduction by William C. Davis, Survey of Early American Design, The National Historical Society, 1987, p. 9
- "Early American Vestibules" in Survey of Early American Design by the staff of The Early American Society, Arno Press, 1977, pp. 154, 156.
- The Maple Lane Museum Complex, Southold Historical Society [accessed August 30, 2017]