Monday, April 09, 2007


This house is exquisite. You might not think so at first blush.

If you've got a pulse you probably know this is called a "Cape" style house. That's short for Cape Cod. Cape Cod is a bit of a swim from where I'm typing this, or a very short sail.

Real estate people call every damn thing a Cape. They likewise have no idea what a Colonial or a Victorian is with any certainty. They also are confused about what "pristine" means. Their dictionary of adjectives is shredded and loaded into a blunderbuss, then shot at the listings, apparently.

This is what is called a Full Cape. It has five bays (four windows and a door) across the front facade. A Three Quarter Cape would have window, window, door, window. A Half Cape would have window, window, door. Cape Codders would often start with a Half Cape, and add on from time to time to get Full Cape goodness.

This is a Full Cape with Ell. The "ell" refers to the perpendicular addition jutting out of the back of the main house, also probably added much later that the original structure or representing a proper fitting out of an animal shed. It's got an addition on the addition, too, but it's not really a Full Cape with Two Ells, as that would generally mean the main house had two different ells coming simultaneously out of its rear. Some persons call the little ell at the end of the other ell the "Back House."

It's a Center Chimney Cape. That big pile of brick serves multiple flues, as the house was heated by fireplaces originally. They were likely very shallow fireboxes that drew very well, and threw a lot of heat. More modern ornamental fireplaces are much deeper. There might be a huge fireplace in the kitchen, perhaps with an oven right in the bricks.

These houses might have a shallow dirt cellar under them, but much of the house, and usually all of the ells are built right on the ground. They had a rubble stone foundation usually. They had rotted sills generally, too.

A house of this vintage would have been timber framed, ie: assembled from fewer, larger framing components instead of the smaller more numerous framing lumber we use now. The interiors would have been covered with wood lath, that is thin strips of wood with gaps between them, and then had plaster applied over the lath with animal hair put in it to strengthen the bond. There was probably no insulation in the walls, although they might dump a lot of construction debris in there. The reason old ceilings sag in these houses is that the portion of the plaster that had extruded through the lath breaks off over time, and the face coating's weight overcomes its modest adhesive strength. You can screw a sort of metal button washer through the plaster into the lath, and plaster over the button, to re-affix it. I have, many thousands of times over the years over many jobs. And I'm not even in the plastering business. All of that has been replaced first by wire lath instead of wood, and then by sheets of gypsum with a paper face. It is customary still on Cape Cod to put a full coating of plaster over these sheets of "Blueboard" - or "GreenBoard" if you're in a damp place. In most of the country they simply cover the seams and screw holes and call it Drywall.

There are clapboards on the front of the house, and cedar shingles on the other facades. It was sheathed with boards, as plywood was as yet unknown. I saw houses still being sheathed with boards when I was child in the 1960s, as some old-timers stuck to their old ways. Pretty rare.

Originally, only the front might be painted, and the rest left to weather to a soft silver if white cedar was used, or a blackish tone if red cedar. This picture was taken in the 1960s, and by that time, it was customary to paint the whole thing white.

The house would have low ceilings downstairs, and you'd live right under the eaves in the upstairs room. You can see the windows are 6 over 9. The top sash has six lites, and was probably fixed in place. The bottom, operable sash has 9 lites. They may originally have had no spring or counterweight on the sash, and earned their sobriquet of "Guillotine Window." They make fake muntins for the large sheets of glass in a modern window, to approximate the look of these panes, and 99 times out of 100 get the proportions wrong. A window pane is is approximately the size and proportions of a human face in a window this big, and that's why you like looking through them. They look OK exactly square, too. And it's a muntin, not a mullion. A mullion is a piece of wood between sashes, not between panes of glass. Even the spell checker is confused.

You can tell the shutters actually operate by the angle they sit at. The heel of the shutter at the window frame sits on pins well out from the facade, but the outer edge is pinned back to the siding. You can tell a fake shutter at 1000 yards because they are screwed flat to the house.

That's a real cedar shingle roof. Probably red cedar. It will last as long as an asphalt roof shingle, but has the three dimension quality and variegated color that asphalt shingles always lack. That's a wooden gutter, by the way, slopped with linseed oil every year and diverting the roof's rainwater into galvanized leaders and down into the ground into drywells. The ground is fine sand down just a few inches, and drains away the water quickly. The ocean is right down the end of the street. I lived on that street for several months in the 1980s while I was building something else. I passed by this house without noticing, probably, because there were so many more like it everywhere. They are beginning to seem rare now, though, as remuddling and vinyl siding takes it vigorish of the housing stock. These houses were routinely flattened to make way for a bigger house, too. Or they leave one wall standing to call it a remodel, and blast the rest to splinters. The ocean makes the lots precious and the house too small for the value of the lot.

Ladies and gents, a real Five Bay Center Chimney Full Cape with Ell and Back House.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Add "Forensic Architect" to your resume. Thanks for the lesson and now I wonder if there are any authentic Cape Cods here in the Madison area.

(And every serious crossword puzzle solver has used the word "ell" many times.)