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Guide to Cape Cod Architectural Style

A Cape Cod style home

The next time you play Monopoly, look at the little green house you put on Park Place. This game piece that has a steep roof, central chimney, and rectangular shape is a small example of the classic Cape Cod-style home.

Cape Cod design is the quintessential American cottage style. Nothing says “home sweet home” quite like this cozy and efficient home style. This style of home has been around for centuries, yet it continues to enchant us. This type of home is now synonymous with the weekend rest houses and beach houses, but it remains popular.

History of the Cape Cod Architectural Style

The oldest house in Brockton Heights, Massachusetts in a Cape Cod style

Though this style is very American, the first Cape Cod homes trace its origins to the colonial New England style, and it’s characterized by its low, broad profile that’s generally a story and a half tall. Early settlers developed this style from England during the 1600s. The earliest forms of the Cape Cod-style had little exterior ornamentation, and they were more straightforward adaptations of the English hall and parlor homes designed to suit the stormy weather of the New England coast.

The symmetrical design that’s arranged around an ample, open space or hall is traditionally English. But the steep roofs were created to minimize the weight of snow settling on the roof. The low ceilings were meant to conserve heat, and the shutters were installed to block harsh winter winds.

The original homes consisted of two rooms, a parlor, and a hall. The homeowners’ daily activities were carried out in the hall, and the parlor is worked as the bedroom. Most Cape Cod homes were constructed of timber. By 1900, these houses had small bedrooms and separate kitchens with pantries, and people began to build onto them.

During the Depression in the 1930s, the style grew in popularity as the demand for more affordable housing increased. During the decade, architect Royal Barry Wills brought national attention to this particular architectural design, which featured the central chimney, plus the dining room, living room, bedroom, bathroom, and an attached garage.

After World War II, the Cape Cod-style was promoted to fill the housing needs of soldiers returning from the war. These inexpensive residences were mass-produced for suburban developments across the country. Though traditional Cape Cod homes were primarily built along the New England coast, today it can be found on the Eastern seaboard, the Midwest, and the West Coast. So, most of the Cape Cod homes you can find today were built after the war.

Cape Cod homes have undergone much modification throughout the years, but still, the distinguishing characteristics of this classic architectural style were typically retained.

Variations of the Cape Cod Style

There are three main variations of the Cape Cod-style, such as:

1. Full Cape (Double Cape)

Full cape style, also known as the double cape, is the quintessential Cape Cod home design. It was rare during the 18th century, and those that existed belonged to the most accomplished settlers. The full cape style has a steeply pitched roof and a symmetrical five-bay façade with a spacious entrance centered on the big chimney.

2. Three-Quarter Cape

The three-quarter cape style was a mainstay during the 18th to early 19th century New England. In this style, the front door is located to one side with two multi-paned windows on one side and one on the other. The entry door is slightly offset from the chimney.

3. Half Cape

This was the starter house during its day. The front door was on one side of the house with two multi-paned glass windows on the other side. The settlers would keep extending to it as their families and fortunes grew, and eventually, the homes would transform into a three-quarter or full cape.

Essential Features of Cape Cod Homes

A symmetrical Cape Cod style home

1. Symmetrical front façade

The traditional Cape Cod homes have a symmetrical front façade and layout with a center hall and equal space on either side. The chimney is centered and linked to a fireplace. The rectangular shape of the house coordinates with other features to build smooth geometric lines.

2. Steep roof with side gables

Cape Cod homes were built with steep roofs to prevent buildup of rain, snow, and ice on the roof. This is one of its most notable and most consistent characteristics. Many homes also featured gabled roofs, which have two slanted sides that join to form end walls with a triangular extension.

3. Double dormers

Dormer windows are also another distinctive architectural feature of the Cape Cod style. A full Cape Cod-style home often has a dormer on either side of the central chimney. These paired windows protrude from the surface of the roof, and it’s frequently the first thing you’ll notice on the house. It boosts curb appeal and creates additional floor space in the area under the roofs. The original Cape Cod-style homes don’t have dormers, but this feature was added to many houses during the 1920s.

4. Shutters and window boxes

The simplicity of the architectural style made it ripe for exterior enhancements like shutters and window boxes. The shutters also function as extra protection against the harsh winter winds. It cheers up the façade of the home.

5. Large central chimney

The traditional, full cape comes with a large central chimney with several fireplaces to provide heat to all rooms in the home. Those Cape Cod homes later built in the South had a chimney built on the outer wall to help dissipate heat. When stoves and furnaces improved, the chimneys grew smaller and began to be constructed on one end of the house.

6. Shingle siding

Weathered shingles are one of the most recognizable elements in a classic Cape Cod house, but newer versions are built with stucco, brick, and stone. The shingles covering the roof and sides of the house are a striking feature. Initially, it was intended to protect the home against harsh climates, but now it has become a low-maintenance alternative to the siding.

7. Wide front porch

The entrance of Cape Cod homes are typically spacious, thanks to its wide front porch. The Colonial versions of the Cape Cod-style did not have front porches, but they became common during the revival of the look.

8. Pilasters

Usually, pilasters are the only ornamental feature you’ll see on Cape Cod-style homes. They surround the front door to make it a decorative highlight. These pilasters slightly project from the wall and surround the entry to highlight the entryway. You can achieve it by painting heavy white trim on your front door without calling in a carpenter.

9. Side or rear additions

In a Cape Cod home, architects and builders tend to preserve the modest façade the style is known for, but they make drastic changes or enlargements to the sides or the back. It started when people tried extending their half cape homes as their families grew.

10. Central hall layout

The original Cape Cod style home’s floor plan is centered on a large fireplace. Newer homes of this style usually retain the symmetry with a central hallway that divides the house in equal sections into both sides. The bedrooms are located on opposite sides of the home, while the living room is found towards the front of the house on one side. Meanwhile, the kitchen is found in the rear.

11. Captain’s stairway

The stairway of Cape Cod-style homes are streamlined and narrow. It’s often compared to a captain’s stairway as it has steep risers and shallow threads, just like what you can find on a ship. It’s designed this way to save first-floor space.

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