The architecture and style of Royal Barry Wills and its impact on real estate and housing trends in modern America is with out peer. Wills’ unique use of traditional designs and signature use of specific design elements merits our special attention.
The Cape style home traditionally is thought of as being symmetrical in design. This is particularly true of the front elevation which is expected to have a Front Door centered on the elevation balanced by two equal sized windows equally spaced on either side of the Front Door. This is the definition for most students of Cape Design of a “Full Cape”. Capes with windows only on one side of the Front Door are considered “Half Capes” and Cape style homes with un-equal numbers windows on either side of the Front Door are considered “Three Quarter Capes”.
- The evolution of these three design styles, Full, Three Quarter & Half Capes, makes perfect sense when you understand the configuration of life styles and economics in New England as the region developed in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth Centuries. As settlers moved into a region and developed homesteads it was important to establish shelter relatively quickly so Half Capes were often how home homesteads were started. While the smaller size seems intuitively to provide for quicker construction because there would be less to build, and it is, one of the major drivers in choosing a Half Cape as an initial Homestead was the cellar. Cellars were integral parts to the homestead as the provided for a secure cool comparatively dry place to store food. New England’s soil is as a rule rocky so digging a cellar hole by had can be quite time consumptive and potentially hold up a building project to a dangerous extent – remember these people were living in tents or lean-to’s until the house was finished. Extensions and additional rooms could be added later. It is very common to go into the cellar of early capes in the Monadnock Region of New Hampshire, Western Massachusetts and Vermont and see that the basement and framing of the home reflect the fact that the home was built one side then first and balanced out later.
Another feature typical of early Cape style homes is the large central chimney. Commonly these were built right behind the front door and offered one or more fireplaces in each if the first floor rooms of the home. The side with the larger Kitchen Fireplace, which often has a baking oven built in it, normally is the side of the home that was built first in the early Capes. As heating technology improved at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries new construction moved away from large central chimneys in favor of smaller single flue chimneys inside the home’s walls to facilitate the use of interior stoves for both heating and cooking. At the same time many Capes with large interior multi-flued chimneys where either being built down into the Rumford style or, more often than not, simply blocked off to accommodate a stove pipe. (One of the most fascinating parts of early Capes is the “Indian Room” that is formed by the backs of all the fireplaces and generally accessed by a hidden panel, generally only a few square feet in area. It is less likely that these spaces were used to hide from Indians than to hide and store food.)
Progressive spacing of the clapboards on an early Cape was quite common as well. The method of spacing the clapboards nearest the ground closer together and then ever father apart also had very practical origins in the early Cape Style home. Putting the clapboards closer together at the bottom of the wall accomplished two purposes it provided slightly more insulation against the snow but more importantly it provided ever so slightly a pitch to the wall that directed snow and ice to run off away from the homes sills and preserve them in many cases for two hundred or more years. Many novice owners of old Capes have changed the original design of exterior walls and found that their sills that had been sound for centuries rotted out in a few years.
Royal Barry Wills used all these traditional aspects of the Cape in his designs and each of them are considered part of his signature: use of graduated spacing of clapboards, large central chimneys, and connecting and balancing half Capes, three quarter Capes and Full Capes together to create lovely practical and well designed homes in the mid-Twentieth Century.
By Dick Thackston CRB, ABR, ABRM
Broker NH, MA & VT