Americans have always loved a good Cape Cod home. In 1938 when Life magazine asked families to choose their ideal place to live, the Cape Cod design was among those few selected, even when compared to an original modern home by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The design visionary may have had great ideas and some very attractive sketches, but he didn’t have hundreds of years of building tradition and a classic form recognized by everyone. Cape Cod designs are just as popular today, and will likely continue as one of the nation’s most enduring building styles.
The Cape Cod style dates back to the earliest period in American and Atlantic Canadian colonial history. These first homes in the 1600s were un-adorned and practical, built for year-round comfort in the windy, cold Eastern Seaboard climate.
Scarce natural resources for building also helped keep these homes simple and small, with little deviation in design, and typically rock or plaster exterior walls.
Early Cape Cod homes had a narrow rectangular shape, with a steep pitched roof to keep winter snow from accumulating. Rarely built with upper floor dormers, these homes tended to have a stark, impenetrable look, which became fashionable during the Gothic Revival period of the early 19th century.
Cape Cod windows were generally double paned with wooden shutters, and placed symmetrically on either side of a central door, as well as in the gable on either side of the house.
The first Cape Cods, also known as Colonial Capes, were usually one or two rooms deep at the most and just a single story with a large attic, contrasting with many 18th and 19th century styles that featured large two and three story designs. Colonial Cape floor plans tended to max out at 1-2,000 sq ft, and were typically furnished with all hardwood floors.
Cape Cod architecture was less common in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as other styles predominated, but it enjoyed a widespread revival in the 1920s, when builders in other parts of the nation started using the style.
The family awarded a new Cape Cod style home in the 1938 Life Magazine project chose to build in Edina, Minnesota, far from the coastal Massachusetts region for which the style is named.
Colonial Revival Capes introduced a variety of new features to the classic form, including upper-floor dormers for extra light, bay and picture windows, front entrance pilasters, and more modern floor plans that sometimes included a kitchen extension at the back of the house.
But revivalists were careful to remember the Cape Cod’s original appeal rooted in classic design, practicality, and affordability, and designed their new homes as traditionally as possible.