The Royal Barry Wills Cape Home

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Guest post today from Dave Stuhlsatz, architect with Royal Barry Wills Associates, and my main contact there for all things RBW. I am very pleased that Dave will contribute an occasional article on mid-century architecture, design and related issues. – Pam

The Royal Barry Wills Cape Home
By Dave Stuhlsatz, Royal Barry Wills Associates

The time seems appropriate to revisit Cape Cod House design as it was promoted by a pioneer of their twentieth century revival, Boston architect Royal Barry Wills. When Wills started out in his architecture career he established himself designing English Tudor inspired homes in suburban towns around Boston like Newton and Brookline. But, it was his rigorous examination and subsequent success with the Cape and Colonial Revival homes that cemented his reputation as one of the most influential residential architects in America.

Wills made every effort to publicize what he was doing and how to do it. The fact that other architects and designers didn’t seem to grasp some of the subtleties of his techniques only made his services more sought after by those who wanted the genuine article. From its historical roots the Cape style house is a study in simplicity and function, but with the right combination of details and a careful arrangement of proportions it can be a deeply satisfying architectural composition. Wills did not seek to perfectly replicate the rugged and spare shelters of the 17th  and 18th century on Cape Cod. To do so would have certainly alienated a client base that appreciated the imagery of the Colonial era, but with modern conveniences and luxuries like indoor plumbing and garages.

The images below were originally published in the August 26, 1946 issue of Life magazine. They provide a concise summation of the design principles espoused by Wills.

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What is ironic about the “Bad Design” is that is the more frequently used model for Cape construction in modern times. Contractors could, and still do, make a compelling argument for the extra space and material economy that can be realized by employing a steeper roof pitch and larger dormers.

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The “Good Design” sketch also conceals the time and care that often went into the details of the custom designs produced in the Wills architectural office. The surge of building in the post-war era witnessed a shift to production techniques that favored production speed over individual craftsmanship. The homes that Wills designed early in his career benefited from the input of skilled carpenters who could invest significantly more time in the construction of mouldings and window trim.

These illustrations also conceal the fact that Wills strived to make his architectural commissions a complete expression of his client’s needs and habits. The constant motifs of large chimneys, carefully scaled windows and exquisitely detailed front entrances imply a formulaic approach to the design process. The subtle variations in floorplans, combined with unique site conditions, contradict this assessment. Wills’ houses display a careful balance between space planning and exterior aesthetics.

The Cape house, with living spaces on the ground floor and bedrooms above, was modified successfully by Wills in numerous designs—his book Living on the Level demonstrated how the visual elements of the two story house could be used in single story floorplans. The power of the Cape Cod house derives in no small part from its near limitless flexibility in layout and details, but without discipline, a Cape can turn into a jumble of awkward shapes. By establishing rules for the composition, Wills could steer the design process in a direction that ensured a satisfactory outcome.

And those large central chimneys that define a Wills home—some of them were fake.

Copyright © RetroRenovation.com 2009

Thanks, Dave, and RBW Associates. I look forward to more guest posts.  Reader, in addition to looking at their main site, here’s a page I love with photos from RBW projects over the decades.

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Comments

  1. James says

    Big fan of RBW. I have a couple of Royal Barry Wills books: A “Homes for Good Living” from the 1940s and an updated version with that same title published a few years ago. Also, “Better Houses for Budgeteers” which I believe is from the 1940s. There’s a house around the corner from mine in suburban Chicago which I believe is a Wills design, a Cape Cod with the massive chimney at the peak of the gable, the low roof line just above the smallish windows and his other trademark design elements. I wonder how one could verify that it is an actual RBW?

    Even if many of the “cape cods” built mid-century departed from RBW’s design elements, his influence is apparent because of the sheer number of cape cod style houses (or distortions thereof) that were built about the same time as his books were being published and the magazine articles were being written.

    The appeal of the cape cod type of house post-WW II makes sense: The returning GI with the shoestring budget could buy a house with one or two bedrooms and bath on the first floor with an unfinished upstairs. As the finances and family grew, the second floor could be finished with additional bedrooms and bath(s). Eventually, the basement would be finished as well, as a rumpus room. Which is exactly what my parents did.

  2. pam kueber says

    Dave,

    I actually have a question regarding this post. If I were going to make an addition to a mid-century house with similar lines — say, my “colonial ranch” which actually has a roof pitch on the box quite similar to the “good” RBW design above… well, if I were to make an addition – say, dormers, or a garage extension… how would I know that the proportions were “good”… “right”…? Is it a mathematical principle – like split into thirds?

  3. Andrea Struble says

    Loved the article, and want to echo Pam’s question about the proper way to design an addition. We have a 1952 Cape (brick) with proportions very similar to the “Good Design” illustration, and—someday—plan to add onto the back to create a master suite.
    A rule of thumb for proportions would be wonderful!
    Thanks for including info on Cape Cods!

  4. James says

    On the subject of dormers, what would RBW have to say about shed dormers? I know he would balk (rightly so) at shed dormers on the front elevation of a Cape Cod, but was he okay with shed dormers across the back of Cape Cods? The addition of a shed dormer was one way many of those 1950s Cape Cods (or variations thereof) were remodeled to gain needed head room for second floor bedrooms. I am thinking of my parents 1952 Cape Cod.

    • rachel hunter says

      I have just bought an RBW house which was built in 1941. I am fortunate to be only the third owner (the first being the parents of the woman who owned it before me. There have been almost no updates except some plumbing, painting and wallpapering. Some of the original wallpaper is still here along with the blueprints, and an RBW signed, color sketch of the house along with all of the communications between the homeowners,builders, electricians etc. and RBW’s firm. This house has two gabled dormers in front and an original shed dormer in the back. It’s hard to know where to begin (maybe with an upgrade to the wiring) but everything I do will be in keeping with the original plans. The house across from me is also RBW and possibly the one next door. Middlebury,VT

  5. says

    Hi James, Pam and Andrea,

    Verifying the “authenticity” of an RBW home is something we do at least once a week here at the firm. The only sure way is to cross reference the name of the original owner of the house with a commission number in our file. We can also give a qualified opionion based on a quick review of photographs of the exterior. Most inquiries reveal a negative match.

    Regarding additions, there are two rules of thumb that we use to guide the design process. The first is to respect the geometry, scale and detailsof the existing structure. The second is make any addition subordinate in scale to the main body of the existing house.
    On more than one occasion this approach has led to the demolition of the original home when it becomes apparent that no addition will satisfy the program of the client.

    Shed dormers have been successfully used on thousands of RBW homes. I may get around to submitting a graphic primer on this, but the general rule is to keep the width of the dormer several feet narrower than the width of the main roof and to get as steep a roof pitch as possible.

    • says

      Hello,

      I found this interesting because I have a RBW built in 1969 and the original owners name was Russell & Dorothy Smith and the archetect was Maude D. Parlin. We would like to put a large shed dormer on each side and I’m wondering if you would have any pictures of examples or plans for sale to expand the second floor.

      • pam kueber says

        Hi Peter, The Royal Barry Wills architectural firm still exists — it is in Boston. You should contact them, I bet they could help. Good luck.

    • pam kueber says

      Hi Jonathan, it’s hard to see the tiny thumbnail/profile pic. Can you post a full-sized photo of your house in your photostreaM/

  6. Hareesh says

    Hello,

    I believe that we live in an RBW from 1933. That is what we have been told. The house is in Medford Ma. This picture is from a few years ago during some landscaping construction. The original owner was named Archibald Sweetman. He was a local artist.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/49664168@N00/4156773728/

    I’d love to know for sure this is a RBW. We love the house. The inside is wonderfully laid out in a practical and beautiful way. I called the RBW firm a few years ago looking for plans, and they said they had very few plans from the 30’s still around.

    Thank you.

    Hareesh

  7. margaret messier says

    I live in a beautiful RBW in western MA. I need to replace the a large bow window. I contacted a mill to have one made and it was way out of my price range. I thinking of using six casement windows. Can you give me any advice on where I might find windows that would be in keeping with the house? Or what type of window to by any advice would be helpful. thank you.

    • pam kueber says

      hi margaret, where are you located? i am in lenox… one place to try: re-store in springfield. its actual name is eco-building bargains

  8. Charles says

    I have a 1972 RBW gambrel, one of the classics in Houses for Good Living, adapted in proportions and layout in the ell.

    The kitchen is small by today’s standards (12×12.5) and has a breakfast room (12 x 9) separated by a wall and cabinets. The breakfast room is cozy and done up in wide heart pine (no knots) tongue and groove paneling. The kitchen cabinets were built onsite by Finish craftsmen.

    I am going to do some new minor work to the kitchen: new countertops, sinks and refinishing the breakfast room floor …dogs and wide pine floors don’t mix. My brother who does houses over tells me to take down the wall between the kitchen and breakfast room, leaving one large room (12.5 x 21). He tells me that is what people want today.

    I get that people live more informally and with more open plans today, but my whole house is cozy with smallish rooms (except the front to back LR). I think that messing with the layout in the kitchen changes something about the character of the house. The house is what it is: a period structure with incredible detail and a feeling you only get in something authentic and designed well.

    Also, once you take something like heart pine paneling down, you don’t get it back.

    My brother is right in saying open is what people want. And I can see the value of a big open room. But I don’t like messing with the integrity of a piece of integrated design and craftsmanship. I am very hesitant to change the layout for the sake of modernity. I remember how the nineteenth century owners of colonials couldn’t wait to change out the 12 over 12 windows with 2 over 2’s, which meant less washing and more light. Looking at those retrofitted windows today, we grimace with horror. A kitchen remake might evoke the same response 50 years from now.

    What do you think I should do? Should I go for the open plan or just update what I have?

    • Charles says

      Well… the answer became clear. Stick with the motif. I redid the countertops and am restoring the cabinetry (over the fall and winter). They house will never look ‘as it was’ in 1972. Hard to find ‘Harvest Gold’ anymore, but I think the new slate (floors) and soapstone (cabinets) look even better than formica and linoleum. And the integrity of the house will be preserved.

  9. says

    My parents had a couple of the Royal Barry Wills books when I was a kid. One day when I was 11 we were on a Sunday drive and I screeched for them to stop. Down a very long driveway I had spotted a house featured in one of the books.

    Today I’m in real estate and it’s great fun to do a “Royal Barry Wills” search on the MLS (he was from Melrose, not far from where I am in Cambridge so there are lots of the houses in Massachusetts) and scroll through the photos. Charm, charm, charm.

  10. margaret messier says

    We are replacing the roof on our RBW in western MA. The house currently has wood shingles and we are replacing with asphalt for cost reason. Our house is white with black shutters. I was thinking traditional weathered gray look that you see on capes. But my husband thinks a darker contrasting color might look good. I could go either way but want to know if anyone has any advise. Thanks!

  11. Marissa says

    Hi….. i feel like im a little late to this post, but i wanted to comment to see if anyone knows more than i can find. I live on Barry Wills Place in Springfield MA. Yes, my street is actually named Barry Wills Place. Rumor has it that Royal entered into a competition against Frank Lloyd Wright around 1938 for life Magazine to design a home for the modern family and won, then they built my street! I dont know how true that is, but people who told me were living in Springfield at that time so i guess i should take there word for it. Does anyone have any proof of this? My house is a definite Barry Wills cape but im trying to find the history behind my street. Thanks everyone!

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