The Cape Cod Cottage

By William Morgan

Princeton Architectural Press, 2006, 96 pp., paperback $24.95.

More often than not, the makers of new traditional neighborhoods construct houses that closely resemble those from long ago. Yet one of the most common early American designs, the Cape Cod house, is often missing from the lineup. Perhaps William Morgan’s captivating new paperback will help to change that.

Morgan, an architectural historian in Providence, Rhode Island, has traveled throughout New England and in other locales, photographing (in lovely black and white) Cape Cod houses new and old, fancy and plain, large and small. The basic Cape is of course not very big — only a story and a half, with no more than four windows and a door punctuating its clapboard or shingled façade. But for three centuries or more, owners have gotten around that limitation by adding extensions, which in some instances are bigger than the original house.

The results can be beguiling. My favorites in this book are Capes that have modest fronts facing the public way but that keep stringing out at the rear, becoming quirky, connected complexes made up of the original house, sometimes an additional house, then perhaps an outbuilding, and finally a barn. This arrangement, which lends charm to innumerable farms and small towns in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, has been referred to poetically as “big house, little house, back house, barn.”

The basic Cape design, Morgan writes, “has survived because it is so sensible.” Indeed, what worked for settlers on the shores of Massachusetts Bay in the 1600s “continued with only minor variations until the Civil War,” he notes. Then came a hiatus, after which, in the 1920s, “a reborn Cape Cod became a staple ingredient of the colonial revival.” For a decade or so after World War II, the Cape became a mainstay of suburban development, embraced both by mass-production developers like William Levitt and by the popular architect Royal Barry Wills, a master of traditional styles. Then tastes changed again, and the Cape ceased to be so commonplace.

A virtue of the Cape was its economical, rectangular footprint and its lack of complicated offsets. “The roofs, composed of two slopes with no breaks or valleys, provided an extra half-story of space at less cost than constructing a full second level,” Morgan says. “There were no superfluous decorations — only what was necessary to shelter the inhabitants.”

Not all new urbanists love these dwellings. “My personal reaction to Capes: The rooms are too small, the ceilings are too low, the trim is too meager,” architect John Massengale e-mailed me when I conducted an informal survey. Louis Marquet of the development firm Leyland Alliance said it’s hard to fit all the features that today’s homebuyers want, such as a ground-floor master suite with walk-in closets and a big bathroom, into a Cape. Richard Wills, who runs Royal Barry Wills Associates, the Boston architectural firm his father founded way back in 1925, agrees. “The problem,” he said, “is that everybody wants higher ceilings and bigger rooms.”

Looking at the new and historical photos in Morgan’s book, however, I wonder if the Cape couldn’t provide just about everything the occupants desire, as long as there’s an extension to the side or the rear to compensate for the smallness and boxiness of the basic plan. Richard Wills confirmed my hunch. “Extensions,” he said, “that was Royal Barry Wills’s trick.” It still works to a considerable extent.
One thing is certain: In anyone who lingers over its pages, Morgan’s little paperback will stimulate new affection for the Cape Cod cottage and its subtle variations. P.L.