New England Architecture

One of the most faithful followers of my contribution to the electronic detritus of cyberspace and certainly the most prolific commenter has her own blog that I follow. While One More Good Adventure is basically a collection of first drafts, checked quickly for spelling errors, Linda’s blog, subtitled A Writer’s On-Going Search For Just the Right Word, is a literary gem. Thoughtful, well crafted with references to great writers and accompanied with great visual images I am truly flattered that she takes the time to follow this, my humble output.

On my post about the Tenacity of Life she asked if the house I grew up in on Cape Cod, and pictured in the post, was a “Salt Box.”

No, it’s not.

Salt Boxes are, though, uniquely New England architecture. According to Wikipedia, the saltbox is an example of American colonial architecture popularized by Queen Anne’s taxation of houses greater than one storey. Since the rear of roof descended to the height of a single-storey building, the structure was exempt from the tax.

There were quite a few of these homes around rural New England when I was growing up and I always thought they were exceptionally ugly.

It’s worth noting that taxation also influenced Louisiana architecture, too. Time was when houses were taxed by the number of rooms they possessed and closets and stairways were considered to be “rooms” by the tax collectors. This led to the use of armoirs in lieu of closets and outside stairways to the second floor in uncounted antebellum houses.

The house I grew up in is what is known as a “Full Cape” also referred to as a “Double Cape” house. That is, the front door is in the middle of the house flanked by two windows on each side of the door. There are also houses known as “Three Quarter Capes” and “Half Capes.” Almost directly across the street from our house was a fine example of a “Half Cape. A door with two windows off to the side. I’ve seen modern houses that have a single window on either of a central door referred to as a “Cape” house, but they’re not. A true Cape must have two windows on either side.

As you can see, as was the case with our house, additions had been made over time to enlarge the original. The two additions have been added since I was a kid back in the mid-50s. Damn, that was a half century ago! The owner of the house when I was growing up was an old Portuguese lady named Netty Silva and she was as tiny as her house. A perfect fit.

Another common feature of the houses on the Cape is the use of cedar shingles. As you can see on my old house they were used on both the siding and the roof. They start off with that beautiful tawny red color when first applied, but they turn a soft silver after a year or two of exposure to the heavy salt content of the air on the Cape. Netty’s house is shingled sides and roof but another common touch is to paint the sides and leave the roof alone. My dad built a lot of houses in the winters when the restaurant was closed and I shingled four or five of them.

A Three-quarter Cape, as you have probably already figured out, has a door with one window on one side and two on the other.

This drawing, stolen from shows another feature of the old New England architecture found on the Cape: the “bow roof” which added slightly to the “headroom under the eaves. Our house had a bow roof.

My bedroom was on the top floor where the middle two windows are. Beneath it was a monstrous lilac bush intertwined with honeysuckle. It’s no longer there because the idiot who bought the house from my dad, and I don’t think it’s the current owner, chopped everything down not knowing what they were destroying. The back yard of the house was separated from the rear acreage by carefully thought-out plants such as lilacs, quince, forsythia, roses, Concord grapes and an enormous snowball bush that was easily 25 feet in diameter. Each bush would bloom in its time throughout the Spring and Summer. As one was dying off another was coming in to flower. The house was purchased in the dead of winter so all the new owner saw was dormant, naked bushes. What a pity.

One last thing. Philbrick’s Snack Shack at Nauset Beach in Orleans

sold the best fried clams, scallops and onion rings anywhere, bar none, for 35 years. When my brother Jeff was running the place he used to sell a ton to a ton and a half of onion rings a week! Not those thick greasy slabs of onion with a bread-crumb coating most of you are familiar with, but thin circles with a light, almost tempura-like coating.

The original Snack Shack was built by my dad around 1948 down at Skaket Beach on the bay side of the town. It was moved to the back yard of our house I don’t remember when, and it’s still there. When my brother Mark, his kids and I were invited to look around by the current owners of the house we went into the original shack and there, still stapled to one of the walls was an original, hand lettered menu. I wish I’d gotten a picture of that.

Well, that’s it, and don’t worry kids, none of this will be on the final exam.


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2 responses to “New England Architecture

  1. Sure do appreciate the kind words, Richard, but I appreciate this post even more. It’s just wonderful! It’s a simple fact that great hunks of the country remain big, blank spaces for most of us. It’s like those maps that used to just say “Indian Territory” while drawing a line around, say, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and so on.

    Little by little I’m filling in some of the details that make that big space I call “New England” come to life.

    The great irony is that I now know my aunt and uncle in Moline, Illinois, actually lived in a Half-Cape. The one you show could be their house – minus the additions. I can remember being able to pick it out even when I was very young because it was so different from everything on their street. It makes me wonder now if a homesick person from Cape Cod wasn’t trying to build a little reminder and refuge, right there on the banks of the Mississippi river!

    Charts used to say: “Here there be dragons.”

  2. Judith

    Serendipity ! Found you through Nooks Towers and Turrents. A poston Cape Cod houses. I recognized Nettie Silvers immediately and have many fond memories of visiting her with my grandmother. My grandparents, Gertrude and John Anthony built the Cape beside her diagonally across from yours. In the forties and early fifties I spent a great deal of time visiting them before they sold it. It sadly, has been neglected since then.
    I also will never forget both the newer and older Snack Shack. Through my life I have never found onion rings to compare.
    Thanks for the memories. I have sent your link to my brother who could tell you of his love of Cape Cod houses!

    I suppose that somewhere back in the mists of time we must have met each other if you visited Nettie Silva’s house. It was always a favorite of mine. I could sure go for some of our onion rings about now.There are people who will say that the onion rings and clams at Arnold’s in Eastham are as good as the Snack Shack but that’s only because they stole our recipe. My brother Jeff was an early partner of theirs and that’s how they learned our secret. The only other place I ever found that came CLOSE to our onion rings is Kelly’s Landing in Fort Lauderdale, but then again, they’re from Quincy, Mass.