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The Closeting Cape

January 11, 2015

As just about everybody knows, “Cape” is short for “Cape Cod”.  What many people might not know is that this name for the simplest of American homes, was given by a former president of Yale University, Timothy Dwight, in his book “Travels in New England and New York”.  Dwight described this simple home as, “One story. . . covered on the sides, as well as the roofs, with pine shingles. . .the chimney is in the middle. . .and on each side of the door are two windows.  The roof is straight. . .under it are two chambers, and there are two larger and two smaller windows on the gable end.”

Even though we associate this idiom, down to the origin of its name, with America, this house was really the North American version of English half-timbered homes of the middle ages.  Not only was the Cape Cod house appropriated and made from smaller pieces of wood in America, after its 17th Century reality petered out in the mid-19th Century, giving way to house forms that were fully two stories, 20th Century Capes, popularized after World War I for returning doughboys seeking domestic tranquility via tradition, found a very marketable plan for sublime suburbia in books like “Houses for Homemakers” by the Boston architect Royal Barry Wills.

Essentially, the later day Cape was like its progenitor on steroids – the same shape, but everything is bigger.  Instead of a 7’3” ceiling height, 8’0” is most often the rule (and now even nine and ten foot ceilings can be found on the first floor), and clapboards or shingles have often given way to brick or, more egregiously, vinyl.

One could make the case that beyond primitive shelter, the Cape’s major reason for being was to facilitate future additions – often dormers, but more frequently either ells (wings off the back) or any number of tack-ons.

Unfortunately for the vast majority of Capes today are oversized from its originally tiny box to one that is now subjected to national building codes and the spatial requirements of a “more civilized” America, as well as central heating.  The suburban Capes of the late 19th through 21st Centuries have only the most obvious relationship to their previous progenitors – their shape.  Gone is the huge central fireplace mass, gone is the tiny winding stair that could barely accept human movement, gone are the tiny windows, raised is the ridge and sometimes even the sidewalls to the point where a Cape can become a fairly large box.

Unfortunately, when a simple form encloses an increasingly complicated set of needs, misfits happen.  In homes for the 21st Century, the typical byproduct of a misfit can be pretty awkward.  For the vast majority of people who are sentenced to live in Capes their upper floors maintain the tightness of a hat several sizes too small, and that pinched reality is not only spatial, it also compresses storage down to an area that one might expect for very wee people (given the low roof, closet doors are often under five feet in height.)

Given the super simple layout, extensions to the “Cape” often render the original rooms to be “walk-thrus” – diagonal passages to new, bigger rooms thrust off the sides or back.  In short, remuddled Capes can have all the disadvantages of a tight and symmetrical plan and none of the advantages of energy efficiency, clarity, or comfort.

What often results in these somewhat bloated 20th and 21st Century Capes are large-scale additions that grow to almost dwarf the original house and make its original shape ridiculous. Perhaps worse, when the more ragged building lots of the last 60 years near urban centers the base shape of the Cape becomes ridiculously misapplied. The irregular terrain forces parts of its box to visually launch out into the back yard or towards the low driveway. The idea of actually having a garage below a Cape seems somehow a crime against nature where the modest, or perhaps even shy, Cape becomes an Easter bonnet for the gaping maw of SUV engorging garage doors.

Capes are perhaps one of the most common homes to have a classically bypassed front door.  Centrally located doors on street-facing facades completely ignore post World War 2 circulation patterns where people enter from cars, often via garages thus enter the house from one side or the other.  A “back” door is typically set between the garage mass of the home in the form of a breezeway or even low shed first-story kitchen/family room addition, that facilitates entering the home at perhaps an area second only in awkwardness to the front door, a corner.

For those who own Capes, it’s probably a good idea to take a deep breath and think about what made you buy the house in the first place (and it was probably its low cost given its diminutive, perhaps even meanly constricting mass), and try to use its undeniably iconic shape as a springboard for some functional liberation and aesthetic “zest”.  Depending on the size of your lot, a “Cape” can be merely one of several shapes that are interconnected to make a balanced ensemble of shape.  Or, the back side of a Cape, almost completely unseen from the street, can go a little bit crazy.  A single large expressive dormer or rear-projecting wing can make the house into an architectural changeling – controlled, symmetrical, and squinty-eyed to the street, with the rollicking, guffawing celebratory backside facing the harbor of informal suburban life.

Unless you are an historicist freak (or possess a true antique) there is literally nothing sacred about most Capes built after the 19th century.  In fact, many true antique Capes were turned into a wide variety of other homes over the centuries including Salt Boxes (doubling up the top, cat-sliding the back), “Garrison” Colonials (going up and out to the sides), or long attenuated “Big House/Back House/Little House/Barn” rambling farmhouse structures.

So the truth is you shouldn’t feel beholden to the “Cape” unless you are simply in love with its form – and if you are, there is precious little you can do to expand its use save an amazing basement civilization (which would require a fair amount of excavation and/or huge window wells to get enough light down into the house to make the downstairs anything other than a depressingly squat, dank, penitentiary of your soul.)

Being heretical with a Cape might mean literally double-heighting an entire side (removing the ceiling to create a wonderful vaulted public side to the house while extending an ell wing for bedrooms with the double-height space and the linear ell connecting at a corner kitchen/dining area.)  In this case, the back door/garage can access both sleeping and cooking spaces with direct ease, while the central front door maintains its promise of delight upon entry by revealing a wholly unencumbered Cape shape to those who enter.

In any simple house shape, it is the exploitation of the shape’s simplicity on the inside that can make it come alive.  Typically, dividing walls make these very simple shapes invisible to those who are within.  By creating spaces that are larger than those designed to maintain and control heating during cold months, a sense of flow and elegance can actually underscore the inherent simple beauty of the Cape shape – a completely gutted upper story of a Cape can have the lively interplay between the aforementioned shed, doghouse and gable faced dormers all cutting into the overall “teepee” of a simple sloped roof.

The Cape is the embodiment of the “Ur” House: a wood tent built by Crazy Colonial Survivalists that needed shelter from deadly weather and predators – animal and human: its baseness is its greatest virtue, promise and compromise.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jerome Morley Larson Sr EAIA permalink
    September 10, 2010 3:54 pm

    Capes closely approach a sphere where you get the most volume for the least exterior surface – so it’s cheap – easy to build – intuitive – steep roofs shed water, snow and deflect wind – less exterior = less HVAC cost – it is still our most sustainable stand alone design – it is quintessential “house” – ask any four year old to draw you a house – its a cape.- after four, school takes over and this marvelous insight is beaten out of you so by forty-four you haven’t a clue. Four year old kids love the low walls of capes because it is in scale with their height (they especially treasure exploring the eaves) – interior design failings are totally the fault of the architect! – and nothing to do with the intrinsic design. Jerome Morley Larson Sr EAIA EARTHARCHITECT

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