The Cape Cod, with its boxy footprint, snug proportions, and shingled roof, embodies our notion of shelter. It's common on islands such as Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard and, of course, the Cape.
Shaped like a Monopoly house, the popular cottage design originated centuries ago in New England. Typical of most vernacular forms, it was determined by the region's weather and built to defy prevailing winds. The broad, squat form with a steep-pitched roof features a few informal rooms downstairs and a half-story loft, often with dormer windows. Two or more fireplaces cluster around a central chimney to warm the home. Exterior shutters, battened down during nor'easters, often punctuate the facade.
The Cape Cod cottage proliferated during the mid-20th century, thanks to a Colonial revival and a need for low-cost housing. It's still known for its compact size and lack of ornamentation. In warmer climates, the details may be strictly decorative or perfunctory, but the New England icon still feels like an honest house―ship-tight, cozy, even romantic.
The Florida Cracker predates electricity and air-conditioning. "It's a product of the environment," says Michigan-based architect Michael Poris. "People were trying to stay cool."
With wood either tacked on vertically―board-and-batten style―or horizontally, in wide-planked clapboards, the modest form rises on brick piers or wooden stilts to avoid floodwaters and termites. Pitched roofs reach skyward and often vent hot air through cupolas or clerestory windows.
Cracker houses cool inhabitants in other ways, as well. They usually feature lots of windows, with corner rooms or large, flowing interior spaces opening on two or more sides for cross-ventilation. Because the fiery Florida sun might also find its way in through those windows, deep eaves on roofs or wraparound porches shade the house. The porches provide cool spaces for rocking chairs and informal dining tables. Screened porches keep bugs away.
The Cracker style's simple layout allows a growing family to attach a new wing to the rear of the house, connecting to the main house by covered walkway. Whether alone or as part of a compound, the Cracker house captures the breezy informality that so many people look for in a coastal home.
Most coastal classics evolved from historical traditions. But contemporary-style homes, which date to the 1950s, grew out of a desire to shun architectural conventions. These homes also took advantage of technological advancements that allowed homeowners to sidestep long-established building techniques. "Postwar America was a new era with new materials," says architect Michael Poris.
Take windows, for example. Whether the double-hung sashes of a Cape Cod cottage or the casement windows of a Mediterranean home, most architectural traditions call for groupings of relatively small panes of glass divided by muntins. The advent of strong, safe plate glass gave postwar homeowners and architects license to experiment with large, unobstructed windows. "In coastal homes, the views are key. You choose a [site] because of the views, water, breeze―the whole experience of being there," says Michael. "In contemporary homes, that experience determines the form."
Other elements of contemporary homes, which helped shape the look of America's suburbs, are wide overhanging eaves, flat or low-pitched roofs, and exposed supporting elements (to emphasize honesty rather than ornamentation). Facades are asymmetrical, and while exterior siding materials can run the gamut, many coastal contemporary homes are made of naturally finished wood, such as redwood or cedar, which weathers nicely when scoured by sandy, salty breezes.
While English colonists battled harsh winters in their Cape Cod houses, Spanish colonists faced the other extreme―punishing heat and often humidity―in Florida and California and along the Gulf Coast. Spanish vernacular precedents, mixed with Italian, Moorish, and other more-recently imported influences, led to the popularity of another coastal favorite, the Mediterranean home.
Though the details vary, these homes might feature thick, stucco-coated masonry walls, low-pitched clay-tile roofs, casement windows, round arches, and heavy, carved doors. Inside, high ceilings lift the heat and ceramic tiles cool floors. Mediterranean houses integrate indoor and outdoor living, with single-story asymmetrical wings rambling around shady, fountain-cooled courtyards. Pools, patios, and lush garden rooms ring these homes.
Early 20th-century architects in Palm Beach, including Addison
Mizner and Maurice Fatio, receive recognition for the Mediterranean
craze in the United States. Their sprawling, ornate mansions
inspired others to build "villas" for smaller lots and tighter
budgets. Today, the Mediterranean still conveys the slightly exotic
experience of living by the sea.