The Characteristics That Define a Cape Cod House
Cape Cod houses are low, broad, and one-story buildings that have a moderately steep gabled roof, a large chimney at the middle, and very conservative ornamentation. This form of architecture, which originated from New England around the seventieth century, prides in a simple symmetrical design made of local materials that can withstand the stark and stormy weather of New England. The building features a central door at the front that is flanked by paned windows. In most cases, the space above the first floor was left unfinished, without or with windows on the gable ends. This style enjoyed a massive boom in popularity and adaptation to prevailing needs between 1930 and 1950 particularly due to the Colonial Revival embellishments. It still remains a popular style of New England architecture.
The Cape Cod style of building houses originated in the wood building areas of New England and was introduced in America by Puritan carpenters. The severe climate in New England had tested the natives’ ingenuity; by pulling the house to fit a square footprint and lowering it, they were able to transport the Cape Cod cottage as it is known today. This style has since survived and emerged progressively as a 1 to a 1.5 story building with clapboard or shingle exterior and wooden shutters. By only using local raw materials – pine and oak for flooring and framing, and cedar for siding shingles and roofing – settlers were able to develop homes that were adapted to the extreme climate in New England. Temperatures in the months of January and February, oftentimes, drop to about -20F, with snow accumulating to reach a considerable number of feet. To effectively fight this cold environment, they had to build low ceiling floors and massive chimneys to conserve as much heat as possible. The use of a steep roof minimized the amount of snow that loaded on the roofs. Finally, the English put shutters on the windows to hold heavy winds.
Timothy Dwight, The Reverend president of Yale University between 1795 and 1817, came up with the term ‘Cape Code’ after he paid a visit to the cape. His experiences were published posthumously in 1821. The style was popularized some more in the 1930s and 1950s, though the more traditional and unornamented capes still remain very popular in New England.
Colonial era Capes were quite prevalent in Atlantic Canada and the Northeastern States. They were constructed out of wood and covered in wide shingles or clapboards – often unpainted – which weathered to show a gray color with time. Most of the houses were small, usually about 1000 to 2000 square feet, in size. Most of the time, windows of different sizes were put in the gable ends, with those of six and nine panes most common.
The design features a symmetrical appearance with the front door placed at the center of the building and a large chimney that can accommodate enough fireplaces. In most cases, the main bedroom was placed on the first floor, with an unfinished loft on the second floor. Typically, the traditional rendition of the house had no dormers and very little or no exterior ornamentation.
Layout and Framing
The first Cape Cod homes fall into four segments: the half, the quarter, the full cape, and the three quarter. The rarer quarter cape is usually a single bay, an outside bay that becomes rooms. The bay has a single window and a single door on the front. The half cape variant consists of two bays, with a door placed on one side of the house and two windows on one side of the door.
The three-quarter cape design consists of a door with a single window on one side and two windows on the other. The full cape has a front door placed at the center of the house flanked by two windows on either side. Even so, the three different categories of traditional Cape Cod houses were nearly similar in layout. Once you stepped past the front door, a small staircase led you to the small upper floor that had about two children’s bedrooms. The lower floor often consisted of a hall designed for daily living – this includes dining, cooking, and gathering – and the master bedroom or the parlor. Please note that different people use different naming systems and might name the full-size variant a ‘double cape’. However, this is used oftentimes for an extended duplex structure.
‘Kneewall’ also known as ‘High Post’ capes were quite an uncommon variant in the olden times, but they became more popular over the 19th century. They then became a popular feature in cape-derived vernacular designs in the Midwest. The posts can extend vertically well past the first floor, simplifying joinery and increasing free space on the second floor. This, however, comes at a cost: the structure becomes quite rigid. The ‘High Post’ design often featured small low windows.
Over time, homeowners decided to double the full cape variant by adding wings onto the sides or rear. Dormers were also added for increased ventilation, light, and space. A porch was added sometimes onto the side of the structure but rarely on the front.
The Colonial Revival houses are quite similar to Colonial Cape Cod homes, but some have fitted a chimney at one end of the living hall onto the side of the structure. More elaborate structures were made for the wealthy while some architects preferred to modernize the Cape to fit middle-income people. The architects did this by including some modern amenities that sought to address the demands for more privacy and technology. More adaptations increased throughout the suburbs after World War 2. Planned communities like New York offered Cape Cods to returning war soldiers.
- Symmetrical Façade – The Cape Cod design features a façade that combines particular design elements to achieve a symmetrical appearance. The house’s rectangular shape combines with other features to generate smooth geometric lines. The door is multi-paned and centered with double-hung windows positioned similar distances on either side of the door. Decorative shutters adorn both windows, and you will often find some sidelights on either side of the door.
- Steep Gabled Roof – The steep roof that is characteristic of Cape Cod homes are designed so to prevent snow and ice from building up: this is one of the design’s most conspicuous characteristics. Numerous houses of this type have gabled roofs that have slanted slides, which join to create end walls with triangular extensions.
- Dormers – Dormers are a very distinctive feature of the Cape Cod design. In most cases, people notice the paired windows that protrude from the roof’s surface. The original Cape Cod houses were not built with dormers; however, the dormers were added to houses during the 1920s. Currently, dormers are always included in the original building plan of Cape Cod design homes.
- Large Central Chimney – Original Cape Cod homes in New England were made with a large chimney on the center that featured a few fireplaces to provide enough heat to all the rooms in the house. Those built later on in the South had its chimney placed on the outer wall: this helped to dissipate heat. As furnaces and stoves were introduced, the big chimney lost purpose and it was no longer needed. With time, the chimneys grew smaller and smaller and began to be located at one end of the home. Needless to say, many of the chimneys at the center of the traditional houses were replaced.
- Wood Frame – Since there was plenty of timber in New England, the traditional Cape Cod homes were made of a wooden frame. To this date, wood has remained a cheap building material, and you are likely to find numerous modern Cape Cod style houses made out of wood.
- Shingle Siding – The cedar shake shingles or clapboard that cover sides and roof of the Cape Cod house are a striking characteristic of these houses. The shingles, which were originally intended to protect people from the harsh climatic conditions of New England winter, have become a cheap and low maintenance substitute to the siding.
- Modest Exterior Decoration – You might have noticed the lack of decorative aesthetics on Cape Cod homes since it relies heavily on geometric lines to highlight its charisma. The perfect alignment of the house’s structural features creates a rather symmetrical appearance that provides an orderly and clean look. Even so, Cape Cod houses are designed with functionality in mind, and the absence of expensive decorations make them cheap to construct and maintain.
- Pilasters – Pilasters are normally the only decorative feature you will see on Cape Cod homes. They project from the wall and surround the door: this highlights the entryway. Most pilasters found on original Cape Cod houses are quite simplistic in design; however, in recent times, you can find a number of styles with even more decorative features.
- Cozy Size – Unlike most homes made during the Colonial Revival era, most Cape Cod houses are quite small in size. However, this small size creates a cozy atmosphere with some alluring charm that has greatly contributed to the style’s popularity. These houses were quite prevalent after the depression since they could be bought cheaply and expanded as more funds became available. It is thus not uncommon to find some Cape Cod home with expansions and additions.
- Central Hall Layout – The floor design and plan of traditional Cape Cod homes were centered around its fireplace. Newer houses have retained the symmetry with a hallway at the center that divides the house into two equal sections. In most cases, you will notice that the living room is placed towards the front end of the home with the kitchen at the rear side. The bedrooms are mostly situated on the opposite side of the house.
- Nostalgic and Modern Cape Cod Interiors – The inside of a Cape Cod house strives for intimacy. Typically, the houses are about one or 1.5 stories that feature low ceilings, even though more recent Cape Cods have increased the height of the ceiling rather significantly. The living room is located on the main floor that consists of a dining room, a living room, an optional bathroom, and the kitchen. Traditional Cape Cods applied wainscoting on the inside walls to ensure that moisture does not build up during the very humid summers. This still remains a popular feature to this date. Generally, the floor plans are square or rectangle in shape with French doors that lead to the patio area.
- Cape Cod Bungalow Cottage – In modern times, Cape Cod designs usually mingle with other styles. It is common to see hybrid houses that have combined Cape Cod features with Ranch styles, Tudor Cottage, Craftsman bungalow, or Arts and Crafts. A bungalow is a small home whose use is reserved for more artistic designs. A cottage, in most cases, is used to amplify the styles described by a bungalow. Cape Cod designs have intermingled successfully with bungalow creations to come up with a new form of housing: a Cape Code Cottage.
Cape Cod houses are low, broad, and one-story buildings that have a moderately steep gabled roof, a large chimney at the middle, and very conservative ornamentation. This form of architecture, which originated from New England around the seventieth century, prides in a simple symmetrical design made of local materials that can withstand the stark and stormy weather of New England. The building features a central door at the front that is flanked by paned windows. In most cases, the space above the first floor was left unfinished, without or with windows on the gable ends. This style enjoyed a massive boom in popularity and adaptation to prevailing needs between 1930 and 1950 particularly due to the Colonial Revival embellishments. It still remains a popular feature of New England architecture.