Everything you Need to Know About Cape Cod Style Houses

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Written By Jim J Neal

John GreimGetty ImagesWhen we think of a house as its most basic form, when we imagine it in our heads or when children draw one on paper with crayons on it, what you see is probably a square house with windows and a pitched roof. What you see is a Cape Cod house.
A Cape Cod-style home is, in many ways, the ideal American home. It has deep roots in New England (hence its name), but also in England, since colonial settlers brought their aesthetic sensibilities and proclivities across the Atlantic in the 1600s.
Roger H. Seifter is a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, New York City. “There are two historical versions of Cape Cod–one is from the 17th and18 centuries and the other is from the early 20th Century. These were enhanced archaeological interpretations.”

Chatham, Massachusetts: This is the perfect Cape Cod home. It’s shingled with durable white cedar. Cape Cods used to be clad in white cedar shingles, which were durable and could withstand salty air. (Seifter points out that white cedar is less popular than ever, and red cedar is considered more environmentally-friendly.

Where did the name “Cape Cod house” come from?

These houses were not named after the area they were built by early American settlers, at least not initially. After a trip to Cape Cod, Reverend Timothy Dwight IV published Travels in New England & New York (1821-22). The first iterations featured a single- or two-room cottage with a fireplace in its middle. However, the style has evolved over time.

It’s classic, and it doesn’t get much better than this Cape Cod-style Cape Cod house with white picket fencing in Provincetown. Dario SartiniGetty Images “There can be a very thick coating of aesthetics over the function,” Seifter states. Each generation tried to keep the original form but these houses were larger and had to incorporate functions not found in the original. It was very practical architecture. The aesthetic aspect didn’t become “a thing” until the 19th century when there was a revival of historic American forms. This coincided with the American centennial celebrations in 1876.
The peak time when Cape Cods were at their best was 70 years later. Levittown, New York’s first phase of the iconic planned suburb community, was comprised entirely of Cape Cod-style houses. Seifter states that original Capes have been added to so many times that they now have an almost “Russian doll” appearance.

In 1954, a row of Cape Cod-style houses was built in Levittown, New York. BettmannGetty Images

What are the characteristics of a Cape Cod-style house?

Cape Cod-style houses come in many sizes and shapes. While the charming and modest dimensions of half Capes make great starter homes, others might want larger, more spacious Capes. Half Capes have their front doors on one side and two windows on the opposite side. This is also called a “single Cape”. A full Cape has a central door with two windows on either side. A three-quarter Cape, which has two windows on each side and one window on the door, is available if you are unable to decide between them.
Older Cape Cods’ second story, located in the triangular space under the roof, was sometimes no more than an attic. However, dormers added in modern homes allowed bedrooms to be extended to the second level without sacrificing light or airflow. This created more living space.
Don’t forget the shutters at the windows. These shutters are a Cape Cod house design classic that once served an important function. They could be closed to protect from the strong coastal New England winds, but are now more ornamental than functional.
Jeffrey BaumanJeffrey Bauman serves as the executive managing editor at ELLE Decor.

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