If you have ever wandered through a 20th century neighborhood, you’ve spotted one. A tidy little rectangle of a house with its long side facing the street, a steep roof perhaps punctuated by dormers, shutters possibly adorning the windows and a quaint colonial air.
The Cape Cod style house is a quintessential American residential style of the 20th century, one that has its origins in the 17th.
In early America, the modest wood-frame houses were centered around the warmth of the fireplace and varied in size based on the economics of the family. They could be simple boxy one-room houses, double in size for two-room houses and so forth.
The name for the style dates back to at least the early 19th century when Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, was traveling through New England and New York and noticed the simple houses. In his 1823 travel writings he described the common one-and-a-half story houses as having “a tidy, neat aspect” and noted that they could be “called with propriety Cape Cod houses.”
While the style didn’t necessarily develop on the Cape, the name stuck and came to define an early American house that would be adapted in the 20th century to become one of the most popular architectural types in America.
How to define a Cape Cod house? In its basic form it is usually a compact rectangle with a steep roof, side gables and one-and-half stories. The type fit neatly into the Colonial Revival wave of the early 20th century with its iconic, streamlined style and stylistic nod to the supposed simplicity of earlier times.
Massachusetts architect Royal Barry Wills is frequently cited by architectural historians for helping to popularize the style from the 1930s through 1950s with designs showing how the traditional form could be adapted to modern life. According to Historic New England, which is currently cataloguing Wills’ archive, he designed more than 2,500 houses across the country, many of them Cape Cods, in addition to publishing multiple books of house plans.
Plans like those by Wills and other architects were exceptionally popular in home magazines of the time. Stanley Schuler, the building and architectural editor of House Beautiful in the 1930s and 1940s, wrote in his book, The Cape Cod House: America’s Most Popular Home, that workers in the magazine’s office would exclaim in a good-natured way “Oh, my God, another!” whenever plans for a Cape Cod house were submitted for publication. They weren’t avant-garde or the latest in modern architectural expression, “but, nine times out of 10 we ran an article about the house,” he recalled, because “it was what readers wanted.”
The houses were easily built, efficient, adaptable to modern needs and still had a link to history that said “American.” While Cape Cod houses sprouted on the landscape before World War II, they became ubiquitous in the post-war era. As the population boomed and construction followed, new developments like Levittown, N.Y., sprung up, filled with nearly identical compact little houses.
We’ve rounded up three houses for sale in New York that have that curbside Cape Cod allure and still retain a bit of retro charm on the interior.
First is a house on Long Island that has had some updates but retains its essential Cape Cod character. The circa 1940 house at 272 East Argyle Street is in the village Valley Stream in Nassau County, near the border of Queens. The area got its own Long Island Railroad stop in the late 1920s, making the already expanding town even more attractive to developers.
With red shutters, twin dormers, small porch and a dramatic chimney, this one’s curbside appeal is strong. The charm continues in the living room with an arched entry, fireplace and built-ins.
The dining room also has a built-in, a glass-doored corner china cabinet. Designed to be compact, the floor plan manages to fit a living room, dining room, kitchen, four bedrooms and two baths into about 1,300 square feet.
While the kitchen has had some more recent upgrades, one of the bathrooms retains some of its tile, a built-in shower stall and bright blue toilet — alas for true vintage bath fans, the sink has been replaced.
Outside there’s a detached garage and a small yard.
The house is listed for $450,000 by Monica Altmann of Douglas Elliman.
In Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is a post-war house that, according to the listing, has been owned by the same family for 53 years. The red-sided house at 64 Alda Drive was built circa 1947-1951 in a development less than 10 miles from the train station in downtown Poughkeepsie, where there’s Metro-North and Amtrak service.
On the exterior the house is a bit of a modified Cape Cod — it has the basic shape but skips the upper half story in favor of single floor living and adds a more pronounced entry and an attached garage. The decorative touches on the interior embrace the colonial spirit, including the eagle ornamenting the brick wood-burning fireplace.
The stand-out feature of this house is the original kitchen. While the appliances have been updated, the wood cabinets are original and plentiful with “colonial” hardware in keeping with the feel of the house.
There are three bedrooms and one bath in the roughly 1,188-square-foot house. Like the last house, this one has a bathroom that sports some original colorful tile, in this case yellow, with vintage fixtures and matching ceramic soap dish and toothbrush holder in a more sedate white.
The house is listed for $239,000 by Arij Kurzum of Houlihan Lawrence – LaGrangeville Brokerage.
We head back to Valley Stream for our final house, another post-war build but with a more traditional Cape Cod look. Located at 70 East Fenimore Street, the circa 1950 house sports shutters, dormers and a small stoop that leads to a surprise inside.
The listing describes the interior as having a “Happy Days vibe,” and it isn’t wrong. Perhaps the time capsule interior is explained by the fact the house has had just one owner since it was built, according to the listing. For a buyer ready to embrace the wood paneling and wallpaper, this one hits the vintage sweet spot.
There are plenty of 1950s details in the kitchen, with its original wood cabinets, corner knick-knack shelves and a decorative scalloped valance above the sink.
There are four bedrooms, two downstairs and two upstairs — including one with some fetching knotty pine horizontal panelling. There’s just one full bath in the house, and some of the original pink fixtures have, alas, been changed out.
The finished basement comes complete with a 1950s rumpus room, including the original bar. So plug in the phonograph, break out the cocktail shaker and prep those deviled eggs. If the party gets too wild, the vintage dark green linoleum tiled floor makes for easy cleanup.
The house is listed for $469,000 by Michael Turschmann of Bill Gallo Realty.
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