Shotguns Are Usually Only One Room Wide
Tradition has it that if you fire a shotgun through the front doorway of this long, narrow home, the bullet will exit directly through the back door. The style is characterized by a single story with a
gabled roof. Shotguns are usually only one room wide, with each room leading directly into the next. Exterior features include a vent on
the front gable and a full front porch trimmed with gingerbread brackets and ornamentation. Mail-order plans and parts for shotgun homes were widely available at the turn-of-the-century, making it a popular, low-cost structure to build in both urban and suburban settings.
The shotgun house is a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than 12 feet (3.5 m) wide, with doors at each end. It was the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the American Civil War (1861–65), through to the 1920s. Alternate names include shotgun shack, shotgun hut, and shotgun cottage. A railroad apartment is somewhat similar, but has a side hallway from which rooms are entered (by analogy to compartments in passenger rail cars).
A longstanding theory is that the style can be traced from Africa to Haitian influences on house design in New Orleans, but the houses can be found as far away as Chicago, Illinois; Key West, Florida; and California. Shotgun houses can still be found in many small southern towns. Though initially as popular with the middle class as with the poor, the shotgun house became a symbol of poverty in the mid-20th century. Opinion is now mixed: some houses are bulldozed due to urban renewal, while others are were saved due to historic preservation and/or gentrification.
Shotgun houses consist of three to five rooms in a row with no hallways. The term "shotgun house", which was in use by 1903 but became more common after about 1940, is often said to come from the saying that one could fire a shotgun through the front door and the pellets would fly cleanly through the house and out the back door (since all the doors are on the same side of the house). Another reputed source of the name is that many were built out of crates, e.g. old shotgun-shell crates, and those made for other purposes. However, the name's origin may actually reflect an African architectural heritage, perhaps being a corruption of a term such as to-gun, which means "place of assembly" in the Southern Dohomey Fon area.
Several variations of shotgun houses allow for additional features and space, and many have been updated to the needs of later generations of owners. The oldest shotgun houses were built without indoor plumbing, and this was often added later (sometimes crudely). "Double-barrel" shotgun houses consist of two houses sharing a central wall, allowing more houses to be fitted into an area. "Camelback" shotgun houses include a second floor at the rear of the house. In some cases, the entire floor plan is changed during remodeling to create hallways
Shotgun houses were most popular before widespread ownership of the automobile allowed people to live farther from businesses and other destinations. Building lots were kept small out of necessity, 30 feet (9 m) wide at most. An influx of people to cities, both from rural areas in America and from foreign countries, all looking to fill emerging manufacturing jobs, created the high demand for housing in cities. Shotgun houses were thus built to fulfill the same need as rowhouses in Northeastern cities. Several were usually built at a time by a single builder, contributing to their relatively similar appearance.
The New Orleans housing taxation structure contributed to the design of the shotgun in its region. The shotgun utilized a minimized lot frontage, when taxes were based on lot frontage, then when that was subverted by untaxable second floor additions of space AKA the "Camelback", the tax was shifted to number of rooms, which equalized the taxation per square footage within a property. Consequently, neither design contains closets or hallways, which were counted as rooms.
Folklorist and professor John Michael Vlach has suggested that the origin of the building style and the name itself may trace back to Haiti and Africa in the 1700s and earlier. The name may have originated from the Africa's Southern Dahomey Fon area term, to-gun, which means, "place of assembly." The description, probably used in New Orleans by Afro Haitian slaves, may have been misunderstood and reinterpreted as "Shotgun." Another, frequently repeated theory suggests that the term "shotgun" is a reference to the idea that if you open all the doors to the house, the pellets fired from a shotgun would fly cleanly from one end to the other (though the origin of this description is unknown). Also a common understanding of the name is that they were built of discarded crates, i.e. shotgun-shell and other crates.
The theory behind the earlier African origin is tied to the history of New Orleans. In 1803 there were 1,355 free blacks in the city. By 1810 blacks outnumbered whites 10,500 to 4,500. This caused a housing boom. As many of both the builders and inhabitants were Africans by way of Haiti, historians believe it is only natural they modeled the new homes after ones they left behind in their homeland. Many surviving Haitian dwellings of the period, including about 15 percent of the housing stock of Port-au-Prince, resemble the single shotgun houses of New Orleans. A simpler theory is that is that they are the typical one-room-deep floor plan popular in the rural south, rotated to accommodate narrow city lots.
The shotgun house was popularized in New Orleans. The style was definitely built there by 1832, though there is evidence that houses sold in the 1830s were built 15 to 20 years earlier. The houses were built throughout hot urban areas in the South, since the style's length allowed for excellent airflow, while its narrow frontage increased the number of lots that could be fitted along a street. It was used so frequently that some southern cities estimate that, even today, 10% or more of their housing stock is composed of shotgun houses.
The earliest known use of "shotgun house" as a name for these dwellings is in a classified advertisement in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, August 30, 1903: "Two 3-room houses near the railroad yards at Simpson st. crossing, rent $12 a month to good tenants who pay in advance; price $1,200 on terms or $100 cash, balance $15 a month; a combination of investment and savings bank: these are not shacks, but good shot-gun houses in good repair." While this advertisement seems to present shotgun houses as a desirable working-class housing alternative, by 1929 a Tennessee court noted that shotgun houses could not be rented to any other than a very poor class of tenants. After the Great Depression, few shotgun houses were built, and existing ones went into decline. By the late 20th century, shotgun houses in some areas were being restored as housing and for other uses.
Shotgun houses were often initially built as rental properties, located near manufacturing centers or railroad hubs, to provide housing choices for workers. Owners of factories frequently built the houses to rent specifically to employees, usually for a few dollars a month.
By the late 20th century, however, shotguns were often owner-occupied. For
example, 85% of the houses (many of them shotgun) in New Orleans' Lower Ninth
Ward were owner-occupied.
The rooms of a shotgun house are lined up one behind the other, typically a living room is first, then one or two bedrooms, and finally a kitchen in back. Early shotgun houses were not built with bathrooms, but in later years a bathroom with a small hall was built before the last room of the house, or a side addition was built off the kitchen. Some shotguns may have as few as two rooms.
Chimneys tended to be built in the interior, allowing the front and middle rooms to share a chimney with a fireplace opening in each room. The kitchen usually has its own chimney.
Other than the basic floor layout, shotgun houses have many standard features in common. The house is almost always close to the street, sometimes with a very short front yard, and no porch. In some cases, the house has no front yard and is actually flush with the sidewalk. The original steps were wood, but were often replaced with permanent concrete steps.
A sign of its New Orleans heritage, the house is usually raised two to three feet off the ground. There is a single door and window in the front of the house, and often a side door leading into the back room, which is slightly wider than the rest of the house. The front door and window often were originally covered by decorative shutters. Side walls may or may not have windows; rooms not adjoining the front nor back door will generally have at least one window even when the houses are built very close together.
Typically, shotgun houses have a wood frame structure and wood siding, although some examples exist in brick and even stone. Many shotguns, especially older or less expensive ones, have flat roofs that end at the front wall of the house. In houses built after 1880, the roof usually overhangs the front wall, and there is usually a gable above the overhang. The overhang is usually supported by decorative wooden brackets, and sometimes contains cast iron ventilators.
The rooms are well-sized, and have relatively high ceilings for cooling purposes, as when warm air can rise higher, the lower part of a room tends to be cooler. The lack of hallways allows for efficient cross-ventilation in every room. Rooms usually have some decoration such as moldings, ceiling medallions, and elaborate woodwork. In cities like New Orleans, local industries supplied elaborate but mass-produced brackets and other ornaments for shotgun houses that were accessible even to homeowners of modest means.
A conventional one-story freestanding shotgun house is often called a single shotgun. Many common variations exist in high quantity, and are often actually more common than the single shotgun in cities.
A combination, the Double Camelback shotgun, also exists. A minor variation is a side door allowing access to the kitchen, or a porch along the side extending almost the length of the house
- Double Shotgun, also called double-barrel shotgun, essentially two shotgun houses connected to each other and sharing a central wall. They are a form of Semi-detached housing. The double shotgun requires less land per household than the traditional shotgun and was used extensively in poorer areas because it could be built with fewer materials and use less land per occupant. It was first seen in New Orleans in 1854.
- Camelback house, also called Humpback, a variation of the Shotgun that has a partial second floor over the rear of the house. Camelback houses were built in the later period of shotgun houses. The floor plan and construction is very similar to the traditional shotgun house, except there are stairs in the back room leading up the second floor. The second floor, or "hump", contains one to four rooms. Because it was only a partial second story, most cities only taxed it as a single-story house - in fact this was a key reason for their construction.
- Double Width Shotgun, is where an extra large and wide shotgun house would be built on two lots instead of one. These were typically built one to a block in locations where a single person would first buy the entire city block during development, then build themselves a double sized home and then subdivide the rest of the block with single lot homes.
- "North shore" houses, shotgun houses with wide verandas on three sides. They were so named because most were built on the north shore of New Orleans' Lake Pontchartrain as summer homes for wealthy whites.
- The term may also refer to a different structure, common in rural areas and small towns, which takes the form of a small, long, free-standing house, generally made of wood, with no hallways. Unlike the larger terraced version, this is generally a single-storied dwelling, but it was still associated with poverty and popular partially because of its ability to make hot weather more comfortable. It was most prevalent along waterways and bayous in rural Louisiana.
Decline and legacy
The construction of shotgun houses slowed and eventually stopped during the early 20th century. The affordability of two technological innovations, the car and consumer air conditioning units, made the key advantages of the shotgun house obsolete to home buyers. After World War II, shotgun houses had very little appeal to those building or buying new houses, as car-oriented modern suburbs were built en masse. Few shotgun houses have been built in America since the war, although the concept of a simple, single-level floor plan lived on in ranch-style houses.
The surviving urban shotgun houses suffered problems related to those typically facing the inner city neighborhoods in which they were located. The flight of affluent residents to the suburbs, absentee owners, and a shortage of mortgage lenders for inner city residents led to the deterioration of shotgun houses in the mid and late 20th century. Confusing ownership, passed down within a family over several generations, also contributed to many houses sitting vacant for years.
Though shotguns are sometimes perceived as being housing prevalent in poor African American neighborhoods, many were originally built heavily in segregated white neighborhoods. Many of these neighborhoods became predominantly black during the 1950s and 1960s, but many others did not and remain predominantly white.
Regardless of who was living in them, from World War II until the 1980s, shotguns came to be widely viewed as substandard housing and a symbol of poverty, and they were demolished by many urban renewal projects. This thinking is no longer so prevalent, with cities such as Houston and Charlotte establishing "Shotgun Historic Districts". Shotgun houses have even been praised as quality and cost-effective cultural assets that promote a distinctive urban life. Other cities, such as Macon, Georgia, experimented with renovating shotgun houses for low-income residents, but found that it is cheaper and more effective to tear them down and build new housing
There are many large neighborhoods in older American cities of the south which still contain a high concentration of shotgun houses today. Examples include Bywater in New Orleans; Portland, Butchertown, and Germantown in Louisville; and Cabbagetown in Atlanta. Their role in the history of the south has become recognized; for example, in October 2001, Rice University sponsored an exhibition called "Shotguns 2001". This three-day event featured lectures on and artistic paintings of the houses, as well as presentations and panel discussions in a neighborhood of restored shotguns.
In some shotgun-dominated neighborhoods, property value has become quite high, leading to gentrification. Sometimes, a new owner will buy both homes of a double-barreled shotgun structure, and combine them to form a relatively large single house. Shotguns are also often combined to renovate them into office or storage space.
Southern culture / Pop culture
The shotgun house plays a role in the folklore and culture of the south. Superstition holds that ghosts and spirits are attracted to shotgun houses because they may pass straight through them, and that some houses were built with doors intentionally misaligned to deter these spirits. They also often serve as a convenient symbol of life in the south. Elvis Presley was born in a shotgun house, the Neville Brothers grew up in one, and Robert Johnson is said to have died in one Shortly before his death in May 1997, Jeff Buckley rented a shotgun house in Memphis and was so enamoured with it he contacted the owner about the possibility of buying it. Dream Brother, David Browne's biography on Jeff and Tim Buckley, opens with a description of this shotgun house and Jeff's fondness of it.
One of the more widely known references to a shotgun house was in the 1980 Talking Heads song "Once In A Lifetime". The first line of the song is "And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack".
Suggested Home Styles Books
- Culture of the Southern United States
- Mobile home
- Railroad apartment
- Terraced house
- House Styles List