History of the Cape Cod Style Home

What is now called a “Cape Cod” house is one of the oldest architectural styles in the United States. When the Puritans came to the New World they brought traditional home construction techniques with them. At first the Colonists built more traditional “English Half-Timbered” houses, but as they acclimated to the New England winters they modified the plans until they developed a standard template for building houses – what we now call a Cape Cod.

The most basic definition of a Cape Cod is a rectangular one and one-half story house with a gable roof, a center front door and symmetrical windows on either side of the front door. Typically, there are windows on the upper half story on the gable ends and windows on the back of the house as well.

In historic “full” Cape Cods the chimney was placed in the center of the house with one or two rooms on either side of the fireplace and a loft for storage or sleeping in the upper half story. Sometimes the home owners didn’t have enough money or materials to build a “full” Cape Cod and they would build a “half” house with a chimney on one side of a single room with loft; as the resources became available, the owners would build the second half and make the house symmetrical.

Of course, the Colonists didn’t call their homes “Cape Cods” they simply called them houses. But by 1800 the prevalence of this style was noted by Yale President Timothy Dwight who coined the term “Cape Cod” for this architectural style.

By the late 1800’s American architecture moved away from modest traditional houses and fell in love with exuberant Victorian houses with ostentatious ornamentation. By the 1930’s the country moved towards a return of traditional architectural styles and that’s when the Cape Cod came back into vogue.

What is now thought of as a Cape Cod style home is more accurately a “Cape Cod Revival” because there are several differences between historic homes and what has been built since the 1930’s. Most importantly there is no chimney (or chimney is moved to the side of the house) the half-story second level is typically two bedrooms and the roof pitch was made much less steep compared to the historic model. In New England the ground is mostly stone so Cape Cods had no basements, but in the Mid-Atlantic most houses have basements as well. The testament to the usefulness of this style is that the modern “ranch” style house is really an over-extended, sprawling Cape Cod.

Today Cape Cods are prized for their compact footprint and efficient use of space. With no space wasted on long hallways the homes are less expensive to heat, cool, clean and maintain. Because the roof is a simple gable and low to the ground the cost to replace the roof is much less than in many styles of home. And, because the gutters are only one story up they are easy to keep clean. Owners of Cape Cod homes can take pride in continuing a nearly 400 year American architectural tradition.