Cape Cod Architecture: An Experiment Turned into Legacy

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Hoxie House | Sandwich, Massachusetts | Trip Advisor
Hoxie House | Sandwich, Massachusetts | Trip Advisor

Cape Cod town, a slender peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, is renowned for its enchanting beaches, picturesque landscapes, and a unique architectural style that has captured the hearts of many. This idyllic region, tucked away in the southeastern corner of Massachusetts, boasts a rich architectural heritage that has evolved over centuries, blending practical necessity with artistic expression. Among the diverse array of architectural styles found here, one stands out as a true embodiment of Cape Cod’s spirit – the Cape Cod house. This distinctive architectural form, born out of necessity and refined through generations, has become a legacy that continues to charm and inspire architects and homeowners alike.

Model L-28 | Low Cost Homes (1900, book) | Porch
Model L-28 | Low Cost Homes (1900, book) | Porch

Origins and Evolution

While Cape Cod cottages are sometimes associated with affluent or coastal elite homeowners today, their origins were far more humble and utilitarian. Shaped by the harsh coastal climate and the rugged terrain, the earliest Cape Cod homes were a reflection of the region’s maritime heritage and the resourcefulness of its inhabitants.

It is believed that the original Cape Cod cottages were designed by two distinct groups – the self-taught native Americans, referred to as ‘Brahmin Bohemians’ (colonists) of the 17th century, and later by European architects like Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius after World War II.

A row of traditional Cape Cod cottages | Truro, Massachusetts | Architectural Digest
A row of traditional Cape Cod cottages | Truro, Massachusetts | Architectural Digest

The early colonists, drawing inspiration from English and Dutch colonial styles, built homes that could survive the rocky terrain and cold winters of the United States while remaining pleasant in the summers.

Utilizing traditional construction techniques like post-and-beam framing and locally sourced materials such as wooden shingles and stone foundations, these homes were designed to withstand the coastal weather conditions. Rectangular plan houses were constructed around large central chimneys, with small rooms and low ceilings. The most common traditional Cape homes were half Cape, three-quarter Cape (also called Saltbox-style Cape), or full Cape, with extremely similar layouts. In these homes with multiple floors, the upper half-story often housed smaller bedrooms designated for children, while the main living areas and the primary bedroom were located on the first floor. This layout efficiently utilized the available space, providing separate quarters for families while keeping the common areas easily accessible.

One-Half Cape
One-Half Cape | OldHouse
Three Quater Cape
Three Quarter Cape | OldHouse
Full Cape | OldHouse
Full Cape | OldHouse

As the maritime and whaling industries flourished in the 18th century, Cape Cod harbors bustled with activity, and wealthy sea captains and merchants initiated changes in the town’s architectural language. Train travel also made the area accessible from Boston and New York, attracting affluent summer visitors who sought respite in the coastal charm of Cape Cod.

After World War II, influential European architects like Breuer and Gropius, who had mastered their skills from the Bauhaus School, settled in Boston. They used Cape Cod as a laboratory for experimentation, building modest structures with expanses of glass and decks that integrated seamlessly with nature. This pivotal event established the strong identity of Cape Cod architecture that we recognize today.

Crosby Mansion | Brewster, Massachusetts | CapeCod
Crosby Mansion | Brewster, Massachusetts | CapeCod
Cape Cod Modern House (by Marcel Breuer) | Raimund koch Photographers
Cape Cod Modern House (by Marcel Breuer) | Raimund koch Photographers

The Story Behind the Name

In 1800, Timothy Dwight, the 8th president of Yale University, vacationed on the Cape and dubbed these small, one-and-a-half-story houses with low ceilings and little ornamentation as “Cape Cod-style houses.” The dwellings were rudimentary structures deeply connected to nature, focused primarily on providing space for sleeping and eating, rather than impressing neighbors.

Hartford residence | Bridgton, Maine | Wikipedia
Hartford residence | Bridgton, Maine | Wikipedia

Cape Cod Revival

As more people started exploring the region, Cape-Cod homes underwent changes. Gone were the days of only small houses; now they grew with additional wings or were simply built larger. Front porches and decks became popular, and dormers were added to usher in more light and create extra space.

The 1920s saw a resurgence of Cape Cod-style homes across America, echoing the charm of the originals and often serving as first homes for new buyers. Although these revival homes might not immediately remind one of coastal New England, they can be found nationwide.

65 Holt Street | Chatham's larger Cape Cods | Victorian Villa
65 Holt Street | Chatham’s larger Cape Cods | Victorian Villa

“Nowadays, we’re seeing a lot of modern interpretations of the ‘shingle style’ house,” Peter McDonald (famous Architect) points out. “They often feature wood shingles, steep roofs, porches, dormers, windows with grilles, open layouts, and a relaxed feel. They might not be perfectly symmetrical, but there’s a focus on balance and proportion.”

Salient Features of Cape Cod Architecture

Cape Cod homes are known for their distinctive features, both inside and out. One can easily identify the structures, and credit goes to their charming cottage-like appearance. The dominant key features are listed below:

Exterior Characteristics

  • Steep, gabled roof with shallow overhang to shed snow and rain
  • Large central chimney behind the front door, adding coziness
  • Classic grey shingle siding for a timeless appeal
  • Front door flanked by two windows with shutters and dormers on either side of the chimney
Cape Cod home designed by Purple Cherry Architects | One Kind Design
Cape Cod home designed by Purple Cherry Architects | One Kind Design

Interior Characteristics

  • Steep, narrow “captain’s stairway” to the second floor
  • Symmetrical layout with one central living space
  • Open concept plan for heat circulation and warmth
  • Low ceilings to effectively retain heat
  • Focal fireplace adding warmth and ambiance
  • Second-floor with large bedrooms divided by staircase and bathroom for privacy
  • Minimal exterior with straightforward lines and little embellishment
  • Decks or porches for outdoor living
Cape Cod home designed by Purple Cherry Architects | One Kind Design
Cape Cod home designed by Purple Cherry Architects | One Kind Design
Cape Cod home designed by Purple Cherry Architects | One Kind Design
Cape Cod home designed by Purple Cherry Architects | One Kind Design
Many Cape Cod–style homes include decks or porches to make outdoor living more accessible.  Photo: David Sundberg | Architectural Digest
Many Cape Cod–style homes include decks or porches to make outdoor living more accessible. Photo: David Sundberg | Architectural Digest

Contemporary Interpretations and Preservation Efforts

In recent years, Cape Cod’s architecture has continued to evolve, with architects and homeowners embracing contemporary design elements while preserving the essence of the style. Sustainable features, such as energy-efficient systems and the use of eco-friendly materials have been seamlessly integrated into many modern Cape Cod homes, ensuring their timeless appeal while addressing present-day environmental concerns.

At the same time, various organizations and initiatives have been dedicated to preserving and conserving historic Cape Cod homes, recognizing their cultural significance and architectural value. These efforts aim to strike a balance between honoring the region’s heritage and accommodating modern living needs.

The Enduring Appeal

Cape Cod houses evolved from humble beginnings into coveted, beloved structures. Their warm and comfortable style evokes summer vibes and a connection to simpler times. As architect Douglas C. Wright notes, it’s the “cultural knowledge” of what these homes represent that keeps them so popular.

Cape Cod architecture boasts a vernacular yet modern composition, making it the quintessential American summer house that has withstood the test of time. Through the preservation of historic homes, the continuation of traditional building techniques, and the thoughtful integration of contemporary elements, Cape Cod architecture remains a cherished part of the region’s identity.

References

  • https://porch.com/advice/whats-that-house-a-guide-to-cape-cod-style-houses
  • https://www.wbur.org/radioboston/2014/08/13/cape-cod-modern
  • https://www.dezeen.com/tag/cape-cod/
  • https://parenting.firstcry.com/articles/magazine-things-you-need-to-know-about-a-cape-cod-style-house/
  • https://www.thespruce.com/cape-cod-architecture-4777185
  • https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/cape-cod-style-house
  • https://www.capecodarch.com/about.php
  • https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/cape-style-house-pros-cons-37132477
  • Architecture of Cape Cod: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=thCBkRzozmQ
  • What is a Cape Cod House and What are its characteristics?: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAZwIVnQ5eU
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Mehar Deep Kaur
An Architect and Urban Designer by vocation, Mehar Deep Kaur is an accomplished educator and writer in the realm of architecture and design. She helms an academic journal, dedicated to disseminating knowledge about the built environment, and has authored multiple research papers on sensitive urban development, published in esteemed peer-reviewed and Scopus Indexed journals. An innovative designer at heart, she holds patents for her designs, focused on optimizing multi-functionality within compact products. Mehar is also empanelled with some online education platforms as a mentor and course instructor. The young academician is driven by the belief that living a deeply fulfilling and meaningful life requires approaching every endeavor with unwavering passion (Meraki).