When you picture Cape Cod, images of saltbox houses with worn wooden shingles, picket fences, blooming hydrangeas, and maybe even an American flag blowing the breeze come to mind. While that’s true for the Upper Cape, you might be surprised how the landscape shifts as you move to the Outer Cape. Here, the Bauhaus movement is alive and well, with over 100 modern houses dotting the overgrown brush. I’ve always been a big fan of the Outer Cape, so I’m embarking on another of my all-American style road trips to explore Cape Cod Modern design.
My Travels to the Outer Cape Through the Years
Ah, the Outer Cape. I love the scruffy land with its giant rolling sand dunes, glacial ponds, and unmanicured landscape that beautifully contrast the more buttoned-up Upper Cape. I spent my honeymoon, or part of it anyway, on the Outer Cape 20 years ago this September. We stayed at a friend’s weekend house and rented bikes, riding to the pond for swims, the clam shack for snacks, and the beach for kite flying and lazing in the sand. It was heavenly.
I’d become acquainted with this magical part of the Cape 10 years prior in my mid-20s. In my early days as a designer in NYC, I became best friends with Elizabeth, a girl I worked with who had a family weekend house there. During the summer, we braved the five hours of New York and Boston traffic every weekend to get to the Cape — Wellfleet, to be exact. I remember sitting in her cramped back seat with my overnight bag stacked on my knees, gasping for breath as she sped up the highway chain-smoking. We’d share fabulous and important stories about our young lives in the city, and the rides became just as magical as the Cape itself.
The lure of the Cape kept bringing me back — for my honeymoon and then through the following years when I was lucky enough to find time to visit. This past summer, I spent some time working on a project up on the Cape. I got to stay for three weeks and see that same friend in her amazing little house with no AC and no television, remaining unchanged from the times we spent there 30 years ago.
Discovering the Cape Cod Modern Style
The traditional Cape style we all know and love relies on design elements like florals inspired by erupting hydrangea bushes and red, white, & blue color palettes that touch on classic Americana nostalgia. These homes set the mood for a clam-bake the moment you set foot on the property. The Outer Cape, however, has a different feel, although just, if not more, magical. But I hadn’t quite put my finger on it yet.
After my amazing summer on the Cape, I returned home to my Austin, Texas, interior design studio. It happened that a new local bookstore was opening, so I decided to stop in during their first week. I came across the book Cape Cod Modern: Mid-Century Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape. It opened my eyes to yet another reason to love that special spot of the world.
The History of Cape Cod Modern Design and the Outer Cape
While the Upper Cape was reserved for East Coast elites and the preppy style that came along with that life, the scruffy Outer Cape was for the outsiders to take and do whatever they liked. By the 1930s, it had become a refuge for creatives, academics, gays, and Europeans escaping the troubles of the war. Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus movement and a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, would vacation to the Cape in 1937 and forever shake up the style of the land. He and his wife hosted a reunion of Bauhaus masters who’d immigrated from Europe. They all fell in love with the landscape, the academic communities of Boston, and the opportunity to buy land and design their dream summer homes.
These designers, artists, and craftsmen took an avant-garde approach, experimenting with mid-century modern designs and found materials on the land to create the unique Cape Cod Modern style. The Bauhaus sect would invite more and more of their friends, just like me and my friends, to build a community of more than 100 Cape Cod Modern houses by the mid-70s.
Provincetown on the Outer Cape remains a haven for creatives, academics, and the LGBTQ community looking for a summer experience to bond and be inspired. And how could you not be inspired by stays in these mid-century bungalows with sweeping windows framing the trees and boardwalks that lead to the promise of lobster rolls and crashing waves on the shore?
A Style Built for Growth
Today, these Cape Cod Modern homes are acknowledged for their regionalist mid-century style and place in history, being preserved and celebrated by organizations like the Cape Cod Modern House Trust and Cape Cod Modern Weekend. More than residences, these Bauhaus homes were living designs where their owners could experiment with new styles and further develop their careers and personal growth.
The Outer Cape is a place to be young and excited about what’s ahead and also a place to pull an existence together without a nearby family of support. Outsiders gathered to experiment, play, relax, and dream. Following in their footsteps years later, I’d come alone to the East Coast, leaving behind my family in Texas. I’d build my career in the city during the week and escape to the Cape for weekends I’ll never forget.
I can’t wait for the next and many more summers on the Cape.