I’ve always found it captivating how each and every home has its own personality that emanates from years and years of owners leaving their marks within the home. Nothing can give us our past, our present and our future more accurately then the walls of our homes. However, preserving all that history can be a daunting task when starting any DIY project. That is why Doc is starting a new series of articles that will spotlight various popular styles of homes and how to keep them historically accurate. On that note, let’ s go far back into time, long before America was even a country.
The cape may seem understated and may scream New England but there is so much more to these little pieces of architectural history then meets the eye. Here you have a simple home that was so easy to build that they are still being built to this day. In an original cape you will find, below your feet, a dirt cellar with a granite foundation. Resting on the foundation, if your home was built in the 1600 or 1700s, are lengths of hand hewn timber that quite often still has its original bark hanging off of it in places. The majority of capes had a giant chimney dead center, which is also visible within the basement level. Also found down here are root cellars, used for preserving root vegetables during the winter months. If you are really lucky you may even find shards of glass and pottery leftover from previous housewives canning and preserving efforts. Now let’s go back upstairs, via the rickety steps, holding tightly to the limb railing, which has been rubbed free of its bark from hundreds of years of owners.
Up here you are going to find 2-4 rooms. A half cape will have two small rooms off to one side with a door and a staircase leading up to the loft area, on the opposite side. A full cape will have 4 rooms with the door and staircase positioned in the middle. Generational capes will have additions on one or both sides of them. Of course size and owner building techniques will make this traditional assessment of the cape’s style vary. For capes with attached barns you will see a shed, called in New England, a breezeway or an ell, off to one side or the other, between the cape and the barn. The ell was often used not only to access the barn but was also used as a summer kitchen.
A summer kitchen being a kitchen purposely placed away from the main living quarters so a housewife could cook, in summer, without heating up the entire home. Summer kitchens could also be found within the basement level of the home as well. The winter kitchen would be located within the two to four rooms of the main body of the cape. If you had a 4 room first floor one room would be, as I mentioned above, a winter kitchen. The other rooms would be a sitting room and, morbid as it sounds, a dying or birthing room. A dying or birthing room is as it sounds. It is the room in which family members went to die or be born as the case may have been. Any additional rooms would be used for bedrooms for the plethora of kids and adults living in the house.
On the next floor, up a flight of very steep and very tiny stairs, you would find the loft area where the children’s sleeping area would be located. This space would have been as it sounds, a wide open loft full of beds or with one big bed for all the kids as the case may be. Often an access door to the ell was visible in this space and was often used as an area to cure and dry nuts, fruits and herbs after harvest. It also made a handy hiding place for kids wishing to avoid the rod.
For generational capes you will have 1-2 wings added to the cape, as I mentioned before. These were often added for family members who had married and wished to stay in the house or for elderly family members to retire to while the younger set took over the house. No empty nesters in the 1600 and 1700s I’m afraid.
The walls of the house would have been either horse hair plaster, wide heart pine boards or a combination of these. The walls would be painted with milk paint often in tones of browns, reds or blues as these were natural colors easily made from items found in nature. The floors too would have been wide pine. The hand-hewn beams, that make up the framework of the home, would be visible in all four corners of the home and in all ceilings as these were not finished off in any way. The reason for this was to allow heat to move freely from floor to floor and to save materials, which would have been hard to come by as you had to make them yourselves. Speaking of heat, in the center of the home you would have a massive chimney that would have fireplaces to service all the rooms of the home. Above each fireplace would be a small round or square vent that would allow heat to rise into the loft above. The winter kitchen could be identified by the metal hanging devices within the fireplace, designed for hanging heavy pots of stew or porridge, and by the beehive oven built into the side of the fireplace, used to bake breads, pies and other goodies. Some capes came with Indian shutters. These were interior shutters that could be shut and latched to prevent arrows from penetrating into the home’s interior, killing its occupants. If you have Indian shutters then your house is extremely old and should be relished for the fine antique that it is.
Now that you understand your cape, its history and what makes it a cape, it is time to figure out how to improve it while maintaining that historical charm. For new capes add wide pine floors and paint walls in muted blues, reds or browns to add that old antique charm and confuse people as to the true age of the home. Shop at salvage yards for antique floor vents and other antique hardware to create that old world look. For old capes do the above procedures but also try to keep the original layout of the home. If you have an ell, make that the kitchen, as it was in the old days, and make the winter kitchen a cozy dining room. Use the other front room or rooms for a parlor. Use any leftover back rooms for a family room, home office and/or guest bedroom. Design any and all bathrooms with antique finishes and fixtures as these would have originally been added to the home as early as the Victorian period. When expanding your cape’s living space try adding a generational look with wings off the sides. If you have a barn try calling a barn home expert to help you turn it into a giant living area. If the barn is detached build your own ell to keep with the old world charm. Dormers also add large amounts of extra headroom and thus extra amounts of living space up on the loft level. And don’t forget the knee walls under the eves. These can be refinished into drawer or shelf storage for additional needed space.
For furniture and decorations use things that have a folk art look to them. Plain and simple is key here. Remember, your forefathers wouldn’t have had fancy factory made furniture when the home was new so neither should you. Old and rustic lend an air of charm to old and new capes alike. Outside of the home stick with shingles since this is the most common cape material and the most nostalgic one as well. Since cedar grays over time, stain the shingles a grey color to begin with. This will protect them from the get go while giving the home an old world look. You can also purchase grey vinyl shingles for the same look without all the maintenance. One last piece of advice, hide TVs and other electronic equipment behind the closed doors of antique looking armoires to keep the antique look without loosing the modern toys.