What Is Cape Cod Architecture?

Cape Cod house in Chatham, Mass.

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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 silhouette, 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, Cape Cod style is the very definition of cookie cutter comfort food architecture that has stood the test of time.

Cape Cod style house in Provincetown, Mass.
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The Origins of Cape Cod Architecture

Cape Cod Architecture is considered a quintessential American style. It was originally 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 original wave of Cape Cod house building was from 1690 to 1850. The second wave known as Cape Cod Revival was built in 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.

Traditional Cape Cod house
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Key Elements of Cape Cod Architecture

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 a steep pitched roof to keep snow from piling up and side gables. 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 Cape Cod house had two rooms, a living room and a master 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. 

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 size and the 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 slicing 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.

Quaint Cape Cod house
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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
  • Painted white exteriors and black shutters became a classic color combination starting with the Cape Cod revival of the mid-20th century, but today other color combinations are common
Cape Cod house
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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 building in 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 mid-century 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.