The Cape Cod House

Gable Windows

Gable Windows

Cape Cod Houses were first called half houses, a door and two windows, usually on the east side; full houses, a door with paired symmetrical windows on each side; or three-quarter houses, a door with a single window on one side, and two windows on the other. There was even a quarter house, a door and one window. They were all part of one specific architectural design made for life on the Cape. The pilgrims were practical. It didn’t take long for them to plan a house well in tune with their new environment. It’s estimated the Cape Cod House has been around for 300 years. Their houses were built strong and low to weather the storms we now call nor’easters. The houses were built facing south to take advantage of winter sun for heat, and summer wind patterns for cooling. They were small, easy to heat, and expandable so they didn’t have to move when the family grew. To be an authentic Cape Cod house—a term first coined by Reverend Timothy Dwight in the year, 1800—it must meet certain criteria. A Cape is one and a half stories; it has a central chimney, large enough to handle two or more fireplaces in the house; a steeply pitched gable roof; and a post and beam frame, with mortise and tenon joints. The houses were sided and roofed with wooden shingles. Sometimes, the front of the house was sided with clapboard, but only the front, as it was considered ostentatious to clapboard the whole house. The half house was usually the beginning design. Inside it had a parlor, used only for weddings and funerals, or a visit from the minister. The small, square parlor was on the northeast corner of the house. It was the most carefully constructed room, with wainscoting and perhaps a paneled fireplace. The front door opened to a small vestibule, with stairs built against the chimney—as steep as a ladder—which ascended to the gable room. The upper half-storey housed the sleeping chambers. More were added, with a window, as the family grew. An old Cape will have multiple sizes, and oddly spaced, windows in the gables because of this. The half house may have a small added room on the other side of the door. All capes had a “keeping” room. This is my favorite. It’s the tiny equivalent of the kitchen/family room we have now, and it was the heart of all the family activity. The keeping room was a narrow space across the back of the house. It had the kitchen with a large cooking hearth; a buttery, pronounced buttree, on one end; and a “borning room”—self-explanatory—on the other end. I could go on and on about Cape Houses. We once lived in an 1835 Cape, which by then had added conveniences, like plumbing. When a log was burning in the fireplace in the room we fondly referred to as the Great Room, the room heated up so thoroughly, we had to evacuate. You needed a rope to help you climb the stairs, but we did have an ell with a real kitchen. Before I go, if you’re still listening, a few fun facts: A quarter house was usually not built alone. It may be detached from a three-quarter house for an unmarried daughter. These were known as “Dowry Cottages”. They were an enticement for a man to marry a woman who came with a house. Often the front stairs of a full Cape would split into two short side stairways, going to opposite sleeping chambers. These were called, “Good Morning” stairs. I’ve been told there was a “Pastor’s Cupboard” in the parlor. When the minister called, the forbidden games were put in, the Holy Bible was taken out. I’ve always loved houses, especially cozy houses and cottages. They will always be a character in my novels.


About Gerri

I'm in my second career. Besides raising my beautiful family, worked as RN. Now I'm a novelist. Have completed five novels and working on my sixth. Way more fun than nursing! Happy hubby and neurotic cat hang out with me.

Posted on June 17, 2013, in On Cape Cod, On Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I feel like I just stepped out of THE most DARLING lil’ cottage! Thanx for the read & allowing my imagination to wander to a place of such comfort. FABULOUS!

  2. Diane Ashbacher

    I was hoping I would see your house with the lovely new front. Very interesting history. Take care.

  3. Great description of the Cape houses! I recently learned that in Australia a dormer window is called “a Cape”: how the language travels!
    I wonder if the pastor knew about the “secret” cupboard (if he was a wise one, he would know, and gently ignore it!)

  4. I love hearing about Cape houses. There were actually a few originals in Framingham.

  5. Very informative……really enjoyed your thorough description and appreciation of Cape houses.

  6. Barbara Feldman

    Wonderful. I learned so much. We once had a new home in Lake Forest IL that had a deep set fireplace with an inglenook in the living room adjacent to the front door. I had never seen this before and was told in the earlier days it was the parlor where guests waited and warmed up when first arriving. Have a great summer.

    Sent from my iPhone

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