The Houses that Became our Homes

The Cape is not only the geographic spit of land we call home, but also the house where we have raised our families for centuries

Almost 400 years ago, after the Pilgrims first touched land in Provincetown and moved on to settle in Plymouth (then known as “Plimoth”), some of the arrivals made their way to Cape Cod to put down roots. After establishing settlements in Barnstable and Sandwich in 1638, followed by other villages on the Cape, the colonists were confronted with some challenges critical to their survival, shelter perhaps the biggest of all. 

Before coming to the Cape, the English settlers in the mid-1600s designed their houses by mimicking the style they had known in their mother country, England. Strictly utilitarian, the cottages were almost square, with a jointed, pegged frame, a thatched roof, and “cob” walls—straw mixed with clay. The builders were no slouches; many of them had been skilled carpenters in England. 

This Eastham home, which still stands today, is a unique three-quarter Cape—all three windows are on one side of the door, and there is also more attic space than what’s traditional.
Photo from “The Evolution of the Cape Cod House” by Arthur P. Richmond. Courtesy of Schiffer Publishing, used with permission.

By the time settlements reached Cape Cod, the cottages began to be larger and less crude. But the colonists’ lives in England, and their houses, were the beginnings of the design of the Cape Cod house style. These are the half Capes, three-quarter Capes and full Capes that give our area so much distinction and personality. 

Arthur P. Richmond, the author of “The Evolution of the Cape Cod House: An Architectural History” (Schiffer, 2011), visited Cape Cod as a child and now summers in Eastham with his wife, Carol. Richmond knows local architecture to the bones. Before writing his classical, beautifully organized architecture book, filled with color photographs, Richmond first visited Plimouth Plantation in Plymouth, part of which is a reconstruction of a 1627 English village. He also traveled to England to study houses; some date to the 1400s and have been saved from destruction and carefully reconstructed at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Singleton, just north of Chichester.   

This half Cape in Orleans, built over two centuries ago, exemplifies the type of home of the early settlers. 
Photo from “The Evolution of the Cape Cod House” by Arthur P. Richmond. Courtesy of Schiffer Publishing, used with permission.

“Traveling to see the beginnings of what would become the Cape house was very important,” Richmond says. It built a base for Richmond to progress to the Cape architectural style and its evolution through the centuries. The local Cape architectural style still charms residents and visitors, and—with the historic homes—prompts the Cape’s town historical commissions and others to try to protect the history that the houses reflect.