The Working Waterfront

Architecture for the way we live

Design should consider aesthetics and lifestyle

By Tom Groening
Posted 2023-08-29
Last Modified 2023-08-29

Our recent vacation trip to Wellfleet on Cape Cod offered many pleasant diversions—ocean swimming, long walks on sandy beaches on both the ocean and bay sides, and enjoying the quiet vibe of that small New England village.

For me, a perennial joy of these visits is taking in the beauty of the architecture, particularly its residential expressions. Cape Cod is rich in history, of course, with the settlers of nearby Plymouth stopping at several points along the Cape’s bay shore as they approached their final destination.

And though the Pilgrims didn’t settle on the Cape, it wasn’t long before they began establishing villages there, and so there are examples of early houses. The Pilgrims hailed from the East Midlands part of England and some scholars say the houses we now know as Cape Cods were replicating the style common in that part of the homeland.

The woman we rent from told me she had to negotiate with the town planning board to get permission to demolish an unused chimney.

I recently learned that Ipswich, Mass. has the distinction of having the most surviving examples of what are known as “first period” homes, an era defined as 1620 to 1720.

The houses I love on the Cape are mostly from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Some feature clapboards on the wall facing the street—”putting up a good front”—with cedar shingles covering the other walls and often the roof. There’s something pleasing to the eye about the textures, dimensions, roof angles, and the way these homes sit in the landscape. In fact, those ratios, according to Middle Age Italian mathematician Fibonacci, replicate patterns repeated in nature. It’s not clear whether those early builders were drawing on those natural ratios or if they just made good sense.

I’ve searched for floor plans for early Capes and been surprised to see a large room spanning the back half of the house, with small closet-like rooms which apparently were used for those who were sick, close as they were to the large fireplace.

There also are plenty of what I call shoebox houses on the Cape—large, asymmetrical buildings with flat roofs, looking like a series of boxes joined together. I’m not a fan.

In fact, there is one such structure on the bay side whose owner flouted the local ordinances in building it and merely, and apparently happily, paid the fines. Especially sad is that the late painter Edward Hopper’s house—a large, white Cape—is a few hundred yards away.

The woman we rent from in Wellfleet told me she had to negotiate with the town planning board to get permission to demolish an unused chimney in her 1850 house. In fact, only the top ten feet remained, and the bricks were supported on a metal frame in the attic.

Severe, perhaps, but such rules maintain the beauty of the town.

She also told me, when I was curious about some oddly placed doors in our second-floor apartment, that she believed they were for a small room for a servant.

And that leads to another point—houses change as we live differently. Large Victorian homes with 15-foot ceilings are not in demand by younger buyers. At the other end of the spectrum are so-called tiny houses, which I think are a fad, perhaps secretly promoted by divorce lawyers.

But seriously, I believe there is an opportunity for a next wave of architecture here in Maine, designs that not only are pleasing to the eye and highly energy efficient, but also are affordable and matched to the way millennials live—plenty of common space, but perhaps smaller bedrooms and no formal rooms.

And that’s why Cape Cods were popular for centuries, right through the early baby boom era. So that’s the challenge, architects—design a home for the 21st century equal to this classic.

Tom Groening is editor of The Working Waterfront and may be contacted at