Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published in July 2016 and has been updated with the most recent information.
Of all the places to escape to during the summer, there are few that tug at our heart strings more than Cape Cod. And—surprisingly enough—a lot of our love for Cape Cod can be found in its stock of historic architecture.
Cape Cod was one of the first areas of North America to be settled by the British in the 17th century. As a result, the sorts of houses one finds down the Cape have evolved and descended from a type of 17th-century British residential architecture. Such houses were usually built of wood, and had only a few rooms on each floor that would be separated by a large central chimney.
Of course, the typical house on Cape Cod isn’t an exact carbon copy of what’s found across the pond: Settlers adapted the architectural style to take on New England's harsh winters and heavy snowfall. Those alterations manifest in steep roofs, which help shed snowfall, and low ceilings that help concentrate heat in the winter. The houses are typically a single story, although sometimes a second story is cleverly hidden in the eaves of the roof.
This type of house became so prevalent on the Massachusetts peninsula that the phrase "Cape Cod house" has come to mean any low-slung, wooden house with a steep roof and a central chimney. The term was coined in the 1820s by Timothy Dwight, a former president of Yale University, in a work he penned called Travels in New England and New York.
"The houses in Yarmouth are inferior to those in Barnstable, and much more generally of the class, which may be called with propriety Cape Cod houses. These have one story, and four rooms on the lower floor; and are covered on the sides, as well as the roofs, with pine shingles, eighteen inches in length. The chimney is in the middle, immediately behind the front door; and on each side of the door are two windows."
While modern houses on the Cape sometimes take the "Cape Cod style,"—Royal Barry Wills, a regional architect, built in this style from the 1920s through the early ‘60s—many antique homes survive. Today, we’re taking a digital trip to the Cape to check out a few summer houses you can scoop up before Labor Day rolls around.
Brewster, Massachusetts (4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms)—$699,900
This shingled house, completed in 1815, takes the typical shape of a Cape Cod house: It has a symmetrical facade with a steep roof and central chimney. The interior features everything you may expect from an early 19th-century home: wide-plank floors, original hardware, and multiple fireplaces (including one with a beehive oven).
The magic with this place is that you don’t need to lift a finger before moving in. It has been sensitively updated to provide the comforts that 21st-century homeowners expect—even when they love 19th-century charm. We especially love the kitchen, which is bright and airy with its cathedral ceilings and white cabinetry but still cozy with its fireplace.
The bedrooms are quaint and charming, especially the one that is tucked way up into the attic of the house with the exposed 201-year-old wooden beams. But, thankfully, the bathrooms are not 201 years old. And even better: The house is a lazy stroll away from the ocean, meaning that you can go from lounging on the beach to grilling dinner in all of 30 minutes.
Dennis, Massachusetts (3 bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms)—$939,000
Completed in 1720, this is the oldest house that we’re seeing today. Like many old houses, it sits directly on a main road, but it also sits at the corner of a dead-end road that leads directly to the ocean! Every piece of real estate has a trade-off, right?
Like the house in Brewster, this shingled home has a steep roof and a central chimney, typical of Cape Cod architecture. The interiors are beautifully preserved. Granted, they are not super grand, but these houses were never intended to be flashy, show-stopping retreats. They were likely farmhouses or homes of people connected with the fishing industry.
There is simple paneling in the dining room and in the living room, with a raised-molding mantlepiece. The wide floorboards are also completely intact. Even the modern kitchen retains an 18th-century vibe. The skill that this renovation and upkeep took is undoubtedly reflected in the price: While it’s the oldest house we’re seeing, it’s also the most expensive.
Wellfleet, Massachusetts (5 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms)—$739,000
While yes, this house sits very close to a road, we think its situation cannot be beat. Hear us out: It’s on a dead-end road—so you’ll hardly see a car pass by—and the road leads directly to the ocean.
By now, the shape of the house should be nothing new: The symmetrical facade, central chimney, and steep roof all make appearances. There seem to be four fireplaces in the 2,000-square-foot house—all radiating off of the central chimney. The interior has a bit more intricate woodwork than the house in Dennis. The mantle and window surrounds in the front living room are especially notable. The nicer woodwork likely signifies that this space was a slightly more formal room for entertaining guests.
Meanwhile, the next room—which seems to run the length of the house—has simpler woodwork and a cooking fireplace, which suggests that this is where more of the daily tasks (cooking, cleaning, possibly sleeping even) were done. This room, sometimes called the “keeping room,” has especially beautiful wide-plank wooden floors.
And outside? There’s an extra bonus of a guest cottage, meaning this house is equipped for some serious entertaining—or renting out on a short-term rental site, if you’re looking to turn your love of old houses into a side hustle, too.