America’s first vernacular architectural style was the Cape Cod house. Developed on Cape Cod, Massachusetts in the 17th century, it was a poor man’s Georgian. A true Colonial style widely copied to this day, the Cape Cod house has never gone out of style.
The Georgian house, popular in England, was characterized by a formal arrangement of parts employing a symmetrical composition and neo-classical details. Its design included pitched gable roofs, a center entrance, and a symmetrical facade with double hung windows that could have, depending on grandeur, as few as six or as many as 20 panes of glass in one sash.
When Colonial settlers came to coastal Massachusetts, they brought with them English ideas of what houses should look like. But limited resources and harsh conditions led to a shrunken, plain version of the Georgian house.
Like its more elegant parent, the Cape Cod house was a simple rectangle. The one and one-half story structure had no dormers or gables on the front, a long shed on the back that led to the “salt box” appellation, and a massive central chimney that pierced a pitched gable roof. The roof and exterior walls were clad with long, hand-split wood shingles that weathered to a gray color. Salt-laden air weathered seaside houses to a lovely silver gray.
The term “Cape Cod house” was not used until 1800. But even by then, the style had spread; by 1740, such houses had been built throughout most of New England, and also on New York’s Long Island. By 1790, the Cape Cod design had made its way into southern New York State. Homesteaders brought the Cape Cod house with them to central New York, to the area around Lake Erie, and by 1830, into Ohio and Michigan. As the house type was brought west during the early 19th century, builders added popular Greek Revival details. Inside, the earliest houses were spare and simple, with floors and furnishings of pine.
Regional variants with gambrel and bowed roofs for headroom, and sometimes with small dormers for added light in the loft space appeared in Massachusetts and Connecticut. On Cape Ann, Massachusetts, for example, a “Cape” always had a gambrel roof.
Although Victorian styles eclipsed the plain Cape, these houses came back, in greater numbers than ever, during the Colonial Revival of the 1930s. They were usually larger than the originals, built with different framing methods, interior plans, staircases, and details. But they all paid tribute to America’s earliest Colonial homes.
The romantic associations of 18th century originals, combined with the ubiquity of 20th century Capes, makes this arguably the most recognized house style in America.
Regina Cole writes about architecture and design, with a specialty in old houses and the history of the American decorative arts, for a number of national and regional publications, including The Old House Journal, Forbes.com, and the Boston Globe. She lives in a vernacular 100-year-old house in Gloucester, Massachusetts.