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A Cape Cod cottage is a style of house originating in New England in the 17th century. It is traditionally characterized by a low, broad frame building, generally a story and a half high, with a steep, pitched roof with end gables, a large central chimney and very little ornamentation. Traditional Cape Cod houses were very simple: symmetrically designed with a central front door surrounded by two multi-paned windows on each side. Homes were designed to withstand the stormy, stark weather of the Massachusetts coast. Modern Cape Cod architecture still draws from colonial designs.
The Cape Cod cottage style (and in turn its Colonial Revival descendant of the 1930s–50s) originated with the colonists who came from England to New England. They used the English house with a hall and parlor as a model, adapting this design with local materials to best protect against New England's notoriously stormy weather. Over the next several generations emerged a 1- to 1 1⁄2-story house with wooden shutters and clapboard or shingle exterior.
The Reverend Timothy Dwight IV (1752–1817), president of Yale University from 1795–1817, coined the term "Cape Cod House" after a visit to the Cape in 1800. His observations were published posthumously in Travels in New England and New York (1821–22).
The Pilgrims designed houses that provided safety from New England’s extreme winter climate. Temperatures in January and February can drop to -20 degrees Fahrenheit, and multiple-feet snow pile-ups occur frequently. To fight the chill, the Pilgrims built extensive central chimneys and low ceilinged rooms to conserve heat. Most Cape Cod homes faced the south, which allowed sunlight to enter the windows and provide additional heat. The steep roof characteristic of New England homes also prevented excessive amounts of snow from accumulating on the house. Fluctuating Cape Cod temperatures presented the problem of moisture within interior walls, which was addressed by using wainscoting: a design element still prevalent today. Finally, the Pilgrims dealt with stormy winds by installing shutters on the windows. A trademark of Cape Cod home design, the shutter is now an aesthetic element instead of a functional one.
Isolated from Europe, early New Englanders used natural resources available in the environment for building materials. Colonists made shingles out of cedar trees, while using pine and oak for hardwood flooring.
Glass from England ran at a high price, so New Englanders arranged small panes (six inches by eight inches) in patterns to form large windows. The smaller panes were less likely to break during the long voyage from England to the colonies. The settlers’ limited economic resources kept their homes small and free from superfluous décor.
Colonial-era Capes were most prevalent in the Northeastern United States and Atlantic Canada. They were made of wood, and covered in wide clapboard or shingles. Most houses were smaller, usually 1,000–2,000 square feet in size. Colonial-era Capes did not have dormer windows (unlike revivals). There were generally an odd collection of windows in the gable ends, and in these windows nine and six panes were the most common. The rooms were generally furnished with all hardwood floors.
The style has a symmetrical appearance with front door in the center of the house, and a large central chimney for fireplaces in each room. A cape-style house also commonly had a master bedroom on the first floor and an unfinished loft on the second floor. A typical early house had little or no exterior ornamentation, although many built during the Greek Revival featured an entablature with corner pilasters, pedimented gable ends, and a pilaster-and-lintel entry with sidelights.
The first Cape Cod–style houses fall into three categories: the half, three-quarter, and full Cape. The half Cape bears a door to one side of the house and two windows on one side of the door; the three-quarter Cape has a door with two windows on one side and a single window on the other, while the full Cape consists of a front door in the center of the home, flanked on each side by two windows. Otherwise, the three categories of early Cape Cod houses were nearly identical in layout. Inside the front door, a central staircase led to the small upper level, which consisted of two children’s bedrooms. The lower floor consisted of a hall for daily living (including cooking, dining, and gathering) and the parlor, or master bedroom.
Located in an area of abundant wildlife, Cape Cod homes are designed to blend into the landscape. Natural colors and simple, subtle design elements are common inside and out.
External walls of classic Cape Cod houses are covered with unpainted shingles or clapboarding. After prolonged exposure to natural elements, the wood obtains an earthy gray color. The houses usually lack front porches, although modern Capes sometimes include screened-in porches located to one side of the home. The decorative highlight of Cape Cod homes is the front door, which is painted in distinct colors, bears an ornament or wreath, and has intricate carving. The windows of the home are surrounded by shutters that either match the front door or are painted white. Other exterior design features include a steep roof with a small overhang, a white picket fence around the front yard, and a detached garage.
One of the most important design elements specific to Cape Cod homes is the trim color. Interior doors, cabinets, and mantels are painted white, and most rooms are finished with white crown molding. The clean look of the white detailing draws attention to another important feature: hardwood flooring. Matching hardwood floors run throughout the entire house except the kitchen, which is usually floored with linoleum or ceramic tiles. The white finishing also accentuates the wall colors, which often reflect the colorful Cape Cod seaside, including ocean blues, sand beiges, and sunset reds.
The houses of early New England settlers seem distantly related to modern Cape Cod–style homes and cottages found throughout the country. While the original half, three-quarter, and full Cape styles are still common, homeowners experimented over the years by doubling the full Cape and adding new wings onto the rear end. Homeowners also added roof dormers for increased space, light, and ventilation. Despite the changes, 1 1⁄2-story Capes are still a popular, affordable style on the housing market.
Colonial Revival Cape Cod houses are very similar to Colonial Cape Cod houses, but some have the chimney at one end of the living room on the side of the house. High end replicas were designed by traditional architects, for example Boston architect Royal Barry Wills (1895–1962). For the less affluent, planned communities like Levittown, New York offered Cape Cod styled tract housing, particularly to soldiers returning from World War II.
The evolution and growth of Cape Cod style architecture is largely due to unstable economic conditions. The Cape experienced a nationwide revival during the Great Depression, when Americans sought affordable housing options. The Cape thrived as a prevalent style until about 1950, when Americans began viewing the Cape as a “poor person’s” or “farmer’s” home, and turned instead to two-story colonials.
Royal Barry Wills became the most popular architect in America after World War II because of his role in modernizing the Cape and promoting an appealing living option for middle-class families. After the Great Depression, Wills focused on designing small, 1,000-square-foot (93 m2) Colonial Revival houses. Rather than reproducing traditional Cape Cod–style homes, Wills refigured the design to include modern amenities that addressed demands for increased privacy and technology, including bathrooms, kitchens, and garages. The simplicity, functionality, and livability of the first Cape Cod houses remained prevalent features of Wills’ updated design. Wills published eight books and numerous magazine articles about architecture, which helped spread his modern Cape design throughout the country. Wills’ work stood in stark contrast to the Modernist architectural movement adopted by his peers. While urban architecture pushed skyward, dominated by larger-than-life skyscrapers, Wills downsized architecture and allowed human scale to define his work. While his Colonial Revival house targeted a less prestigious market than other Modernist architects, the work of Royal Barry Wills continues to profoundly impact the middle-class housing market.