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The Cape is more than just a spit of land… it’s also a home

The John Newcomb House in Wellfleet, where Henry David Thoreau once stayed and which he wrote about in “Cape Cod.”
Photo from “The Evolution of the Cape Cod House” by Arthur P. Richmond. Courtesy of Schiffer Publishing, used with permission.  

The allure of the Cape style house has captured people worldwide for many years. “Think about what Timothy Dwight, a former president of Yale, said,” Richmond remarks. In 1823, Dwight wrote a book, “Travels in New-England and New York,” which is considered the first reference to the Cape-style house. Richmond included the passage from Dwight’s account in his book:

“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. This is the general structure and appearance of the great body of houses from Yarmouth to Race Point (Provincetown).”   

Houses in the 1600s, and later, often grew as the family expanded and, sometimes, as household money increased. “A house would start out as a half Cape, facing south, with clapboards in front and an overhanging roof,” Richmond says. “Usually they were inland, in a hollow, not on the water. With the forests denuded for farming, the houses faced the south for the sunshine.” The gambrel style, sometimes referred to as a Cape style, came later.

A typical fireplace of a Cape house, complete with the tools, implements and attachments needed for early occupants to cook and heat the house.
Photo from “The Evolution of the Cape Cod House” by Arthur P. Richmond. Courtesy of Schiffer Publishing, used with permission.  

The rooms in the original Cape-style houses had specific uses, Richmond adds. “The birthing room was in front to get heat from the fireplace. There was also a keeping room, which was the general area, and a parlor that functioned mainly when the minister came.” Most of the houses were insulated with hay and reeds, and most people had a root cellar.

In “Cape Cod,” his iconic 1865 book, Henry David Thoreau observes local communities and nature. Photographs of two of the Cape style houses where Thoreau and his travel companion, William Ellery Channing, stayed—one in Wellfleet and one likely in Eastham—are shown in Richmond’s book. Thoreau describes the houses he saw: “sober looking houses … a story and a half high … The great number of windows in the ends of the houses, and their irregularity in size and position, here and elsewhere on the Cape, struck us agreeably, as if each of the various occupants … had punched a hole his necessities required it, and according to his size and stature, without regard to outside effect.”

Truro’s Samuel Paine House, built in 1825 and pictured here in 1960, is an example of a classic full Cape.
Photo from “The Evolution of the Cape Cod House” by Arthur P. Richmond. Courtesy of Schiffer Publishing, used with permission.

Thoreau predicted the Cape would become “a place of resort for those New-Englanders who really want to visit the sea-side.” The truth of that prescient comment has unfolded over the past centuries. Today, the Cape has many commissions and residents seeking to protect historic houses, which can be found across Cape Cod and the Islands.

One resident leading the effort is Danielle R. Jeanloz, executive director of the Atwood House & Museum in Chatham, also home of the Chatham Historical Society. The Atwood House is a full Cape built in the 1750s. (Some refer to it as a gambrel.) The home’s builder was Joseph Atwood, an 18th century sea captain and “navigator of unfrequented parts.” In the 1750s, afraid that he might lose his ship in the war between England and France, Atwood stayed in Chatham for a year to build the house.   

At the time, the 1752 house was one of the biggest, most luxurious houses in Chatham. Today, the Atwood House & Museum is open to the public. “It’s amazing how sturdy it’s been,” Jeanloz says of the structure. “It’s a really well-built house.” The Atwood House was occupied by Atwood family members until the 1900s. 

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