Monday, January 18, 2010

Traditional Cape Cod Houses: A Short History Lesson

Yesterday Sven and I drove out the one-way road to Lieutenant Island, mostly deserted at this time of year. Below, the view from the narrow access bridge, with Cape Cod Bay in the distance. Water covers the wooden planks at extreme high tide. Lieutenant Island used to be called "Horse Island." We saw few cars, because most of the houses belong to non-residents. This exclusive neighborhood may be ideal in summer, when light reflects off the water in so many directions, but the bumpy ride and icy slush made me fear becoming stranded. We both decided proximity to town is a definite advantage. How far residents must travel for basic necessities! Most of the houses are modern, built in the last sixty years. I looked in vain for a traditional Cape Codder and did not see a one.

At an estate sale this fall, Sven picked up a book called “Cape Cod Houses.” In the preface, historian Doris Doane writes, “I have always had a love for the people, the atmosphere and almost unique way of life found on this ‘beautiful arm’ of Massachusetts. Its simple yet practical ‘Yankee’ philosophy has been expressed in numerous ways by many generations of families, but the form of architecture known as the Cape Cod house is perhaps one of the most important single contributions the Cape has made to the rest of the country.”

For those of you who do not know, the Cape Cod house is a low, broad frame building, with a steep, pitched roof, a large central chimney, and little ornamentation. Home sites were planned facing south, to take advantage of the noonday sun. Our house, below, faces south and is typical of the three-quarter style, as is this building in Truro, a former farm, no doubt, set in a landscape very similar to what Thoreau must have observed while here. Often a “half house” was built and expanded as the family grew, to become what we now call a “full Cape.” These simple homes were anchored by the sturdy chimney, which supplied heat. The floorboards were wide pine. Insulation was mostly non-existent. (When Sven and I took down a wall, we discovered horsehair used as insulation.) The owners cooked over the fire in the “keeping room” and ate lots of shellfish. Instead of taking garbage to a dump, they simply threw the oyster shells outside – I know, because I hit an oyster-shell layer in the garden with my shovel once!

Our January 1st guests pounced on Doane's Cape Cod Houses as soon as registration was done. The following day the wife shared interesting details over breakfast, including markings on a chimney to indicate royalist leanings, which I have never seen.

“The widest floorboards were earmarked for the British crown. Where is your borning room?” she asked, peering around.

I explained that during renovation, we had combined the pantry with the borning room, to create a more sensible space that could be used as an office. I told her the Atwood Higgins House, in the National Seashore, still has its borning room, a pantry, and a buttery, with slanted shutters to keep out the sun. Atwood Higgins also has cupboards like the one in the parlor, here at Chez Sven, so similar in fact as to have been created by the same carpenter. According to Doane, the parlor contained a tiny "minister’s" cupboard beside the mantel in which a bottle Madeira was kept to "warm the parson after his long, cold ride."

Our house feels very comfortable, as if happy people had lived here in the past. I sometimes wonder who those former residents were, how many babies were actually born in the “borning” room, where the women did their spinning, whether the husbands were farmers or shellfishermen? And, I can’t help but wonder, do any of their spirits still hang around?

For photos of our house in 1903, go here. Did any of you grow up in a traditional Cape Cod house? Have you ever been to Lieutenant Island? Or, visited Atwood Higgins house? Do you ever think about the house you live in and yearn to know its past?