Cape Cod architecture is one of the most popular and easily recognizable styles of American architecture. Named after the Massachusetts coastal region where it is the signature style, Cape Cod architecture is ubiquitous in New England and can be found across the United States.
Admired for its simple, timeless clean-lined rectangular silhouette, steep roof, and central door, a Cape Cod cottage is the kind of house a child would draw if you asked them to draw a picture of a house. Homey and effortlessly appealing, the Cape Cod house style is the very definition of cookie-cutter comfort food architecture that has stood the test of time.
The Origins of Cape Cod Architecture
Cape Cod architecture is considered a quintessential American style. Cape Cod houses originated when the style was introduced to the United States by English colonists in the 17th century, who adapted English half-timber hall and parlor houses to suit the bitter New England climate, creating a boxier, lower-slung silhouette to stand up to the elements.
The history of Cape Cod architecture continued as the original wave of houses in this style was built from 1690 to 1850. The second wave, known as Cape Cod Revival, was built from the 1920s to the 1950s and helped popularize the style which spread across the United States.
In the 1930s, the Depression and Colonial Revival combined to make Cape Cod-style homes regain popularity as an economical building style. In the 1940s and '50s, Cape Cod homes were a widespread answer to the post-war housing boom. Even in supersized 21st-century America, Cape Cod style homes retain a nostalgic popular appeal with new builds of all sizes today, from sprawling homes to tiny houses inspired by the original Cape Cod architectural style.
Key Elements of Cape Cod Architecture
While their sizes vary, different types of Cape Cods are known for sharing a few common characteristics:
- Basic rectangular shape
- One story plus a half-story second floor
- Steeply pitched roof
- Central chimney
- Center door
- Low ceilings
- Shutter-clad and dormer windows
Cape Cod architecture is one of the most instantly recognizable home styles in the U.S. At its core, an original Cape Cod house is a small, rectangular, unadorned one to one-and-a-half-story cottage with side gables and a steeply pitched roof to keep snow from piling up. A big central chimney and low ceilings helped keep the house warm. A central door with simple surrounds is flanked by multi-paned wooden shutter-clad windows.
The original interior design of a Cape Cod house had two rooms: a living room and a primary bedroom, like the English “hall and parlor” rooms upon which they were based. The original design concept has endured but Cape Cod architecture has evolved over the last few centuries. The massive central chimneys particular to New England Capes were often reduced in size as heating technology became more advanced, and chimneys were displaced to the side of the house in homes built in warmer climates outside the region such as the south. Modern Cape Cod interior design is often achieved by opening walls to make larger spaces.
To accommodate the desire for more space, the original blueprint is often doubled, with wings added to the back or sides. Cape Cod houses have three main variations: half, three-quarters, and full Capes according to the size of their footprint, chimney placement, and the size, positioning, and number of windows. The full Cape is considered the ideal specimen of the form, a symmetrical rectangular house with a massive central chimney and entry door flanked by double windows on each side.
In the 1920s, people began inserting dormer windows into the roofs to increase light and ventilation and create extra bedrooms. Cape Cod revival houses from the mid-20th century forward often are a bit more embellished than the austere early models but simplicity remains a visual hallmark of this somewhat minimalist but undeniably cozy home style.
Materials Used in Cape Cod Architecture
Cape Cod houses were traditionally constructed using hardy local materials that could stand up to the harsh New England winters, such as:
- Oak and pine wood post and beam framing
- Oak and pine wood flooring
- Brick fireplaces
- Clapboard or cedar shake roof and side shingles left unpainted to weather in the elements as seen in original Cape Cod cottages
- Cape Cod style exteriors were painted white with black shutters, which became a classic color combination starting with the revival of the mid-20th century, but today other color combinations are common
Interesting Facts About Cape Cod Architecture
- The Post-World War II suburbs were born in Levittown, Long Island, New York, in the country’s first planned community made up of identical rows of Cape Cod cottages built to cater to returning military vets.
- During the Colonial Revival of the mid-20th century, Boston architect Royal Barry Wills helped popularize modernized Cape Cod houses for the middle class by adding amenities like bathrooms, kitchens, and garages.
- Where did Cape Cod Architecture get its name? It was thanks to Reverend Timothy Dwight IV (1752–1817), the eighth president of Yale University from 1795–1817, who branded Cape Cod style architecture when he coined the term “Cape Cod House” after visiting the Cape in 1800.
- The Cape is also home to a lesser-known collection of roughly 100 midcentury modern homes such as the Hatch House in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. many of which were built by self-taught Bohemian artists who built DIY homes and studios with local materials and clean modern lines.