What is a Cape Cod house?

I have been working on adding House Histories to my services as a genealogist.  My suspicion is that the people who would like a house history are a different group than those that want their ancestors identified.  The development of a house history uses many of the same documents that a genealogist does–deeds, city directories, censuses etc.  Since I am an architect, it seems like a natural fit.

One would think I would already know all there is to know about residential architecture as I have taken two years of college level architectural history, been immersed in the profession for almost 40 years, been an observer of our built environment for that long and am licensed as an architect.  I am also a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, an group within that architectural community who have demonstrated national impact.  While all that is true, my knowledge of residential architecture is small and mostly self taught due to my career focus on large commercial and institutional work.

So, this vacation I spent time looking at houses.  The next few posts will explore some of my findings.


There are three kinds of Cape Cod houses:  the full, the 3/4 and the 1/2.  I captured photos of the full and the half.

Half  Cape Cod

Full Cape Cod

The photo on the left is a “Half Cape Cod” house with two windows on one side of the door; the house on the right is a “Full Cape Cod,”  with two windows on each side of the door. The “3/4 Cape Cod” has two windows on one side and one window on the other.  While neither of these houses was built prior to the turn of the 20th century, they reflect a vernacular style that was prevalent throughout Falmouth and a style that was predominant in the earlier centuries of the area.

There are a few things to note that makes this a unique type of residential style of architecture.

The roof line has a “pitch” of 45 degrees, i.e. it has a slope of about 1 foot of run for every 1 foot of rise.  While in my observations in the area, this varied a bit, if the pitch decreased to say 30 degrees, the house started looking like a “rambler” typically built after WWII.  If it was a steeper pitch then the chances of it having a full second story on the back were good and the house style ended up looking more like a “salt box”.

Traditionally, the chimney, indicating the location of the double-sided fireplace, was centered in the middle of the house. This appears to be the case with the 1/2 CC above but the Full CC has its chimney offset. The centering of the fireplace allowed for the fireplace to be in the center of the house and afforded maximum heat retention in the winter time. In the winter cooking would have occurred in this fireplace but in the summer was done in a “summer kitchen,” a shed away from the house, so the heat did not accumulate.

Cape Cod planOur family had a wonderful visit with my cousin Pat, her husband, son and two grandchildren. They vacation on the Cape in the family home which has been in the family for more than 125 years and which was built in 1750.  The plan of their home, a Full Cape Cod, originally look like the plan to the left. [2].  However, we entered the house through the back door because the front door has such a small receiving space.  This receiving space probably at one time had the stair going up to the second floor as shown on the plan.

Their brick fireplace and chimney was located in the center of the house.  The opening of the fireplace was surprisingly small–about 36″ wide and 30″ tall.  The large single room in the back of the house was the kitchen and gathering room for all.  The formal parlor, called the “East Room” on the plan, they had turned into a bedroom.  The right side of the house also had a buttery or “pantry” and a “borning room.”  This latter room was considered the warmest room in the house and was reserved for the sick and for the birthing and nursing of children but was very small.  The “bedroom” on the plan was now a comfortable sitting room.

The ceilings are low, about 7′ and the doors are even shorter, about 6′-4″ which made it challenging for anyone who is 6′ or taller.  (Today our ceilings are routinely 8′ and sometimes 9’6″ and our doors are 6’8″.)  The flooring was wide plank, about 12″ wide, and the ceiling was 8″ plank.

The house had a second floor composed of two bedrooms with steeply sloped side walls which were accessed by a very steep stair (think ladder-like).  It also had a “bee-hive” basement used for winter storage of food accessed from outside the house.  The space is quite small, perhaps 80 square feet and is round in plan.  Originally the house had no bathroom or running water.  Needless to say both “amenities” are now available.

Pat and her husband have done a great job remodeling and building an addition which kept the basic integrity of this 1750 house.  I commend them for that.

There is a lot of variety in the exteriors of the Cape Cod house type.  You can see bay windows on the 1/2 CC and the window indicating a second story tucked in under the eves.  The Full Cape Cod has siding on the ends.  Neither house has a porch, overhangs or any overt decoration.  Both have shutters (ornamental, in these examples), side shakes, white trim on the windows and the eaves.  How much of this is dictated by the local design ordinance, I don’t know, but I suspect the exteriors are highly regulated in this area.

Interestingly, my friend Susan’s childhood home, at least by my recollection, was a Cape Cod style home.  Of course, it was in Iowa and was a post war constructed home.

Next, we will look at the eclectic Naushon Ave. in Oak Bluff, Martha’s Vineyard.

Happy Hunting!


[1] “How can You Recognize a Cape Code Style House.” Capelinks. http://www.capelinks.com/cape-cod/main/entry/how-can-you-recognise-an-original-cape-cod-style-house/ : accessed 30 June 2013.

[2] Connally, Ernest Allen. “The Cape Cod House: An Introductory Study.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians , Vol. 19, No. 2 (May, 1960), pp. 47-5.

2 comments on “What is a Cape Cod house?

  1. Susan Emanuel says:

    Interesting post, Jill!

    On Jul 15, 2013, at 2:50 AM, Genealogy Certification: My Personal Journal wrote:

    > >

  2. Janice says:

    Fascinating! I never realized the different types.

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