Shotgun Houses of the Southern United States

Monday, 24 July 2023 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General, Architecture
Reading Time:  11 minutes

in Uptown New Orleans © Infrogmation of New Orleans/cc-by-2.5

in Uptown New Orleans © Infrogmation of New Orleans/cc-by-2.5

A shotgun house is a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than about 12 feet (3.5 m) wide, with rooms arranged one behind the other and doors at each end of the house. It was the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the American Civil War (1861–65) through the 1920s. Alternative names include shotgun shack, shotgun hut, shotgun cottage, and in the case of a multihome dwelling, shotgun apartment; the design is similar to that of railroad apartments.

A longstanding theory is that the style can be traced from Africa to Saint Dominican influences on house design in New Orleans, but the houses can be found as far away as Key West and Ybor City in Florida, and Texas, and as far north as Chicago, Illinois. 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. Urban renewal has led to the destruction of many shotgun houses; however, in areas affected by gentrification, historic preservation efforts have led to the renovation of such houses.

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, which was often added later, often on the back of the house, sometimes crudely. “Double-barrel” or “double” shotgun houses are a semi-detached configuration, consisting of two houses sharing a central wall, allowing more houses to be fit 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.

The origins of both the term and the architectural form and development of the shotgun house are controversial, even more so in the wake of conflicting preservation and redevelopment efforts since Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans architectural historian Samuel Wilson, Jr. influentially suggested that shotgun-style houses originated in the Creole suburbs (faubourgs) of New Orleans in the early 1800s. He also stated that the term “shotgun” is a reference to the idea that if all the doors are opened, a shotgun blast fired into the house from the front doorway will fly cleanly to the other end and out at the back.

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 have only 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. In some cases, the house has no setback 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 (60 to 90 cm) 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 adjoining neither 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.

Elvis' birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi © Markuskun in Little Rock, Arkansas © Bruce W. Stracener in Old Jefferson, Louisiana © Infrogmation of New Orleans/cc-by-sa-4.0 in the East Wilson Historic District of Wilson, North Carolina © Nyttend in New Orleans © Infrogmation of New Orleans/cc-by-sa-3.0 in New Orleans © Infrogmation of New Orleans/cc-by-sa-4.0 in New Orleans © Infrogmation of New Orleans/cc-by-sa-3.0 in New Orleans © Infrogmation of New Orleans/cc-by-2.5 in New Orleans © Library of Congress - Carol M. Highsmith Fourth Ward of Houston, Texas © WhisperToMe in Bloomington, Indiana © Nyttend Classic camelback shotgun house in Uptown New Orleans © Infrogmation/cc-by-2.5 in Uptown New Orleans © Infrogmation of New Orleans/cc-by-2.5 in the Campground Historic District of Mobile, Alabama © Jeffrey Reed/cc-by-sa-3.0 Moreno Cottage in Pensacola, Florida © Ebyabe/cc-by-sa-3.0 in New Orleans © flickr.com - David & Karyn/cc-by-2.0
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in the Campground Historic District of Mobile, Alabama © Jeffrey Reed/cc-by-sa-3.0
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. A camelback house, also called humpback, is 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 to 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 – this was a key reason for their construction. 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. “North shore” houses are 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 construction of shotgun houses slowed and eventually stopped during the early 20th century. The increased 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 the US 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-to-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 prevalent in poor African American neighborhoods, many originally constituted much of the housing stock of 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 such cities as 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 and, though there was indecision whether it would be cheaper 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 Third Ward in Houston; Bywater in New Orleans; The Hill in St. Louis; Portland, Butchertown and Germantown in Louisville; Cabbagetown in Atlanta and Village West of Coconut Grove in Miami where the last remaining 25 shotgun homes have been designated as historic structures. 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, gentrification has led to property values becoming quite high. 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 offices or storage spaces.

Read more on Shotgun Houses, Southern Living, 22 July 2020: What Is a Shotgun House?, Country Roads Magazine, 25 July 2021: On Shotgun Houses and Wikipedia Shotgun House (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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