Hidden among towering beach rentals and tucked away on remote parts of our barrier islands, there are many iconic and historic Outer Banks cottage styles. For the last 200 years, the OBX has innovated style and function as a part of our complex coastal environment.
History of Cottages on the OBX
The history of cottages on the OBX dates back as far as the 1700s. The truest form of locals can still be heard today in some accents. Back then, these people were mainly fishermen or victims of a vessel caught in a storm.
In the mid-1800s, when visitors began to build homes on the Outer Banks with wood salvaged from shipwrecks and other ocean findings. Nearby forests allowed them to harvest local timber.
By the late 1800s, a number of our most iconic beach cottages had sprung up, displaying styles and architectural features that we still see around these beaches today!
Popular Architectural Styles
The first popular architectural style to pop up on our barrier island were the original Nags Head oceanfront cottages in around 1855. Known as Old Nags Head Row and affectionately coined, “The Unpainted Aristocracy.” These homes (or should I say, “summer homes”) fancied large covered porches and cedar shake siding and roofs.
As time passed, other architectural styles joined their company, including the Flat Top Design, brought to the Outer Banks in the 1940s by designer and visionary, Frank Stick. Other styles came on the scene, including the A-frame cottage, the Round House, and the popular Beach Box.
Many of these cottages borrowed features and designs from the original cottages and structures built before them, designs that used local materials and were suitable for ocean-front living and harsh weather conditions.
#1: The Unpainted Aristocracy
In 1855, W. G. Pool bought 50 acres of oceanfront land in Nags Head for a whopping $30. He planned to build a home for his family and sold lots to his friends for $1 apiece. The cottages were left unpainted, earning the name, “The Unpainted Aristocracy”. And with that, the wealthy elite came to Nags Head and created what is now known today as Nags Head’s Historic Cottage Row.
These homes were built resourcefully with materials easily found. The iconic cedar shake siding was sourced from the nearby mill in Buffalo City, North Carolina. The homes were built upon pilings to allow ocean overwash to flow underneath during storms or extreme high tides.
The stately, covered wrap-around porches served as extensions to the living areas for eating and even sleeping, and their coverings provided added shade for the interior of the home. The large hurricane shutters were installed on hinges so that they could be closed quickly and easily when storms were approaching.
These features (and others) became so popular that the style is sometimes referred to as “Nags Head Architecture.”
#2: Flat Top Cottages
Frank Stick is credited with bringing the Flat Top cottage design to the Outer Banks. In 1929, Frank settled his family on Roanoke Island to help establish the first National Seashore at Cape Hatteras, the Wright Brothers National Memorial, and Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.
In 1947, he realized his dream of creating an ocean-to-sound community. He purchased a four-mile stretch of land just north of Kitty Hawk and named it Southern Shores. The town was later incorporated in 1979.
Stick’s flat tops were first constructed along Ocean Boulevard in Southern Shores. Later the home design sprang up around the Outer Banks.
Sadly many of the original flat top cottages have been destroyed by hurricanes. The flat tops that remain are local icons and new versions are built, keeping their legacy alive!
#3: Round Houses
Round houses are as unusual as they come, and if you’ve driven past one, you may have wondered: “What in the world?!”
The unique style of round houses came to the Outer Banks as a result of the shape’s extreme resistance to winds! Looking a little bit like a Yurt and sporting a central support beam resembling a giant wagon wheel, these homes have a circular (or maybe octagonal) floor plan.
Staying in a round house is an unforgettable experience, as I remember visiting one when my children were little and they were endlessly entertained by running laps around the hallway which circled the home like a racetrack!
#4: Story & A Jump
An A-frame house is easily recognized by its triangular shape that resembles the capital letter A. In the mid-1800s on Ocracoke Island, there were many “Story & A Jump” A-frame houses, one and a half stories high.
The slopes of the roof actually serve as two walls of the house with large windows in the front and back to allow light in. A-frame homes are typically small and have limited storage space, but they always have so much character!
A-frames are found along the coasts of eastern North Carolina for various reasons. First, the shape of the roof allows water to run easily down the sides thus saving the structure from any pooling water as the rain falls heavily during hurricanes and Nor’easters. The steep slope of the roof also provides protection from high winds. Easily lifted, A-frames can also be protected from flooding and beach erosion.
#5: The Beach Box
Credited with the beginning of the Beach Box, Brighton Beach in Australia hosts rows of tiny brightly painted wooden structures just above the shoreline. Originally meant to provide shelter for changing surfers and beachgoers, beach boxes are known for being small.
Arguably the most popular style of architecture on the Outer Banks, the Beach Box has evolved from one-room changing boxes to small, wooden beach homes. Most homes can be found on pilings or “stilts” to escape from inevitable coastal flooding and beach erosion.
When development became popular along the Outer Banks coast in the 1970s, Beach Box cottages were easy to build as real estate in the area boomed. Homes typically offer a central living area and kitchen with 2 or 3 bedrooms off to each side for more intimate square footage.
#6: Outer Banks Life Saving Stations
Congress instituted the U.S. Life Saving Service (now the US Coast Guard) to construct the Outer Banks Life Saving Station in 1871. The life-saving agency was created to rescue shipwrecked mariners along our coasts.
These “surfmen” patrolled beaches and manned watchtowers, looking for ships in distress. Since the region along the coast of the Outer Banks is dubbed “The Graveyard of the Atlantic” due to the innumerable shipwrecks, it is no wonder that Life Saving Stations popped up along the Outer Banks coast as soon as the agency was established.
Historic Features Applied to Modern Homes
Worth noting is that the materials, designs, and features of the early Life-Saving Stations became an iconic style of Outer Banks architecture, often duplicated in homes and structures even today. Like many of the early structures built on the Outer Banks, Life Saving Stations were designed with function in mind, especially against the harshest storms.
Historic features applied to modern homes include things like Cedar Shake siding & roofing, hurricane shutters, and gable accent trusses. While most of their “design choices” were for the sake of functionality, today we see these features duplicated sometimes purely for aesthetic purposes!
Cedar Shake Siding
Cedar Shake siding and roofing is a prized architectural choice on the Outer Banks for a few reasons. Cedar is known for being considerably more hardy than other woods and can better withstand the harsh salty and storm conditions of the Outer Banks. In addition, this siding was (somewhat) easily available from a lumber mill in the town of Buffalo City that once stood 19 miles west of Manteo.
Interestingly, today there is not even a trace of where this once-thriving mill and community once stood!) Today we still chose cedar siding for its hardiness, and also for the aesthetic beauty and nod to our past.
Hurricane Shutters seemed to exist on nearly all early Outer Banks architecture, particularly on the oceanfront. These shutters served the obvious purpose to “batten down the hatches” when storms were approaching. They closed quickly to ward off the winds, rain, and debris during hurricanes and nor’easters
Today, hurricane shutters have become a design accent seen all over the country. Most of these decorative shutters are not functional and don’t actually open and close, serving only decorative purposes.
Gable Truss Accents
Displayed on many, if not all, of the early Life Saving Stations are Gable Truss Accents. The Life Saving Stations were built in a style of architecture known as “Timber Frame” bc of the design’s ability to withstand even the harshest conditions!
It is unclear whether the gable truss accents were installed for added structural support, or if a woman came on the scene and decided the simple structures needed a decorative accent (not really, haha!). Either way, these accents have become an iconic design in Outer Banks architecture, and one of my favorites, at that!
As you can see, Outer Banks architecture has an interesting history, full of function, resourcefulness and design! It is no wonder that many of these once-necessary and functional features have since become prized decorative accents! What’s your favorite beach cottage design?
Bring the OBX Home
Kimber Smith is the creative founder of The Outer Banks Candle Company. With a degree in art, she has dabbled in many art forms from oil painting to calligraphy to furniture refinishing. And when she’s not busy making candles or managing the high energy (chaos) of life with five kids, she enjoys writing about the journey of it all!