Cape Cod Houses: The History and Characteristics of This Simple, Charming Home

what is a cape cod home?

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Even if you've never been inside a Cape Cod in your life, there's a good chance you're familiar with its eponymous style of architecture. Simple, charming, and quintessentially "New England," this historic home style is growing in popularity—even in places far from the coast. It's not unusual, for instance, to find yourself touring a quaint Cape Cod cottage in the landlocked Midwest. But this style of home can often fall under the "I'll-know-it-when-I-see-it" category of architecture. So what exactly is it that makes a home be classified as a Cape Cod?

Cape Cod Home

A Cape Cod house is typically single- or two-story, wide and rectangular-shaped, and features symmetrical windows on either side of the central front door. Cape Cods are often defined by their practical gabled roofs with dorm windows, which are composed of two sloping sections that meet in a roof ridge at the top.

What Makes a House Cape Cod-Style?

what is a cape style house? cape cod home with siding and dormer windows

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The design is usually very symmetrical and simple, with shuttered windows flanking a front door and a chimney accenting the roof. Perhaps the most distinctive part of a Cape Cod house is the roofline. This style of home is often characterized by a somewhat steep gabled roof that pitches down toward the first story—in fact, you'd be forgiven for assuming Cape Cod homes are always one story, since the second story is often obscured by the roofline.

These gabled roofs are one of the most popular roof styles, owing to their simple, unornamental style and practical, weather-friendly pitch. The pitch (or angle) of the sections can be customized for climates that experience a lot of snow or rain. It's also common for many modern Cape Cods to have an attached or detached garage, front walkway, and back patio or porch.

Inside, the external symmetry is kept up with a "center hall" design similar to Colonial styles, but usually with a more modest footprint. The second floor was historically accessible by a steep staircase and was sometimes left unfinished, with the only light coming in through windows at the side of the house. Later styles of Cape Cod homes remedied the issue of having little upstairs light by cutting into the roofline to create dormer windows.

Here are the most common features of a traditional Cape Cod house.

Exterior:

  • Single- or two-story design
  • Rectangular shape
  • Symmetrical windows
  • Central front door
  • Gabled roof
  • Dorm windows
  • Neutral color
  • Wood shingles or modern siding

Interior:

  • First-floor kitchen, living room, and bedroom
  • First-floor bathroom
  • Large second-floor bedrooms on either side of the home, separated by the staircase and bathroom

The History of Cape Cod-Style Homes

historical cape cod homes

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Though this historic style originated as far back as the late 17th century, it has experienced resurgences in popularity many times since then. While Cape Cods first started sprouting up in Massachusetts, they were common in most of New England by 1740. By the 1830s, they had spread from southern New York to the upper portion of the state, where their popularity continued west into Ohio and Michigan. Today, Cape Cods can be found in most of the continental U.S., as the modern full Cape style had a resurgence during the 20th century.

A traditional Cape Cod will be covered in wooden shingles which are weathered to the classic hue of distressed grey-blue, though today a Cape Cod house may be any color or have any style of siding (which is good news for those who hope to move away from the labor of maintaining real wood shingles). Many traditional Cape Cods will also feature exposed wood ceiling beams thanks to their simplistic, practical architecture.

In true New England fashion, these homes were designed to let the warmth of the kitchen filter into the rest of the home because of the harsh winters in the region. In the small, simple design of the original single Capes, the kitchen and family room were located at the center of the home with an open floor plan.

What Are the Different Types of Cape Cod Homes?

different types of cape cod homes

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Cape Cod houses are usually divvied up into different categories: quarter-Cape, half-Cape, three-quarters, or full Cape. Though the taxonomy seems strange for a house, the naming system actually just refers to the placement of doors and windows.

Many quarter- and half-Cape styles are no longer common in modern times. If you're in the market for a Cape Cod home, a full Cape is the largest (and most functional) variation to serve as a family home.

Quarter-Cape

The quarter-Cape is by far the smallest style of Cape Cod homes, and it's particularly rare to see today. This style of home was often built by early American settlers as the beginning of a larger home. Quarter-Capes have only a single window and door on the front-facing side of the home. In the earliest designs, many of these homes featured windows that extended to the top of the ceiling because the ceiling height was lower than in today's standard architectural designs.

Half-Cape

A half-Cape is the second-smallest variation. As such, it's not as symmetrical as what we consider a Cape today. It features a door on one side of the home and two windows on the other, which would then be expanded as the family (and their wealth) grew. As one would expect with a building style that originated with the Puritans in New England, the house size is usually modest—however, in the 1900s, the classic Cape Cod was often expanded upon or redesigned to accommodate more affluent families.

Three-Quarters Cape

A three-quarters Cape, on the other hand, would have two windows on one side of the door, and a single window on the other. Today, we're still just as charmed by the small footprint of a historic Cape Cod home. Their unique character, homey feel, and shabby-chic aesthetic make them an appealing antidote to the cookie-cutter tract homes in subdivisions that first became popular in the 1950s.

Full Capes

A full Cape (also sometimes confusingly referred to as a double-Cape) is completely symmetrical. It features two windows on each side of the front door, which is centered on the home and on the single chimney. Full Capes are the most common version of these homes to see in modern neighborhoods today, though many of the homes have been maintained since they were built in the early 20th century.

Typically, the term "double-Cape" refers to a large Cape Cod designed for multiple families to be used as a duplex. Full Capes serve as single-family residences, and they were originally characterized by an open living room and kitchen in the middle of the home. This central room opened up with doors to several different bedrooms and often a formal living room—but most modern designs place more of the bedrooms upstairs.

What Is the Difference Between Cape Cod and Colonial Homes?

different types of cape cod homes

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The appeal of a Cape Cod cottage is in its simplicity and unassuming design—which makes it a great style of home for anyone still refining their personal aesthetic. Unlike a true Colonial, which may suggest a traditional interior design style to match, Cape Cods are highly versatile because of their clean geometric look. They typically tend to be smaller (often having three bedrooms to the Colonial's four or five), and modern Capes are characterized by the dormer windows that are less common to newer Colonial homes.

Certainly, Cape Cods lend themselves to coastal elements inside, but they're just as easy to decorate in an eclectic, new traditional, or Scandi-inspired style. With a look that's both historic and understated, it's easy to find a design aesthetic that will be harmonious with a Cape Cod cottage.

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