Popular with the Puritans, and popular again with WWII vets, Cape Cod houses (like this one) have established themselves as charming and practical homes filled with nostalgia and personality. From 17th-century Cape Cod, Massachusetts to today’s Seattle, Washington, these homes have grown from cramped, practical refuges to American icons. But from then to now—even over a three-and-a-half-century timeline—anyone can identify a Cape Cod.
Tell-tale signs of a Cape Cod house
- 1 or 1.5 stories
- Wood siding (often shingle or shiplap siding)
- Symmetrical exterior and interior layout
- Centered front entry
- Steep roofs with side gables (meaning the triangle parts of the roof are on the sides of the house)
- Centralized chimney
- Open-concept living space
- Clean lines, little aesthetic detailing
These homes originated with New England colonists. The half-timber cottages of the their English homeland served as the architectural starting point. The symmetrical layout centered around a large, open living space (back then, they called that space a “hall”). These houses were low and broad with flat-front facades—you’ll see similar features in the colonial homes built farther south, as well.
But from there on, the design was pragmatic. New England winters dropped to -20 degrees Fahrenheit, snow piled up several feet high, and harsh winds battered the landscape. A giant chimney that connected several rooms spread warmth throughout the house, and low ceilings conserved heat. A steep roof kept snow from building up and collapsing the ceiling. Shutters kept out the fierce wind. Decoration didn’t matter as much in Puritan New England as did survival and setting up civilization, so homes lacked ornamentation, and the space above the first floor was often left unfinished. Building materials came from the local area: oak or pine framing, covered in cedar shingles or clapboard.
These homes didn’t become known as “Cape Cod houses” until the early 1800s, when the Reverend Timothy Dwight IV, President of Yale University, visited Cape Cod and gave them the moniker that has since stuck.
Today’s Cape Cod Homes
Cape Cod homes were eclipsed by Victorian homes styles, but they came back in vogue in the 1920s and 1930s during a Colonial Revival period. The revivals, though, looked a bit different. Free of the practical demands of early New England, these contemporary versions were larger, the second story under the eaves was finished (usually bedrooms), and dormers were added. More ornamentation appeared, like exterior trim, and the shutters became decorative.
These revived homes spread across the country. They boomed after World War II, since the simple layout made them ideal starter homes for returning soldiers. Although not nearly as austere as tradition Cape Cod homes, the new ones were still a manageable size, efficient to heat, and easy to expand with additions down the road as a family grew larger. Put a white picket fence in front of a Cade Code home, and you have a movie-worthy picture of the American Dream.