A "shotgun house" is a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than 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. Alternate names include "shotgun shack", "shotgun hut", "shotgun cottage", and in the case of a multihome dwelling, "shotgun apartment". A railroad apartment is somewhat similar, but instead of each room opening onto the next room, it 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; Key West, Florida, Ybor City, and California. 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 saved due to historic preservation and/or gentrification.
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, often on the back of the house (sometimes crudely). "Double-barrel" or "double" 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.
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 first 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 you open all the doors to the house, the pellets fired from a shotgun would fly cleanly from one end to the other.
Alternatively, 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 18th century and earlier. He claimed the name may have originated from a 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." Citing Vlach, James Deetz claimed archaeological support for an African origin in his dig at Parting Ways, a 1790s community of freed black slaves in Plymouth, Massachusetts; his shotgun interpretation of the extremely limited evidence – two rooms that "may or may not have been unified" – has been challenged as "premature".  Vlach's 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, Vlach maintained 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 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.
Shotgun houses were most popular before widespread ownership of the automobile allowed people to live farther from businesses and other destinations. Building lots were small, 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 built to fulfill the same need as rowhouses in Northeastern cities. Several were often built at a time by a single builder, contributing to their similar appearance.
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. 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 double shotgun, also called double-barrel shotgun, is 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.
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.
The double-width shotgun is an extra large and wide shotgun house, 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 subdivide the rest of the block with single-lot homes.
"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 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. 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.
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 and, though split on whether it is cheaper to tear them down and build new housing, some were rebuilt.
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.
A limited revival
Elements of the shotgun style have recently been seen in a number of the compact, low occupancy structures employed in the Solar Decathlon contests held in Washington, DC, periodically. While some are erected from panels brought to the site, many such structures consist of enclosed single or multiple units designed specifically for road transports, with multiple modules connected on site, and compact linear structures often employ multiple-use "zones" rather than specifically private areas, while retaining a linear progression of spaces.
In 2011, Louisville's daily newspaper, The Courier-Journal, reported that a local nonprofit agency devoted to building and renovating affordable housing was building new shotgun houses in a development in southwest Louisville.
Popular and Southern 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, Aaron Neville of The Neville Brothers grew up in one, and according to blues man David Honeyboy Edwards, Robert Johnson 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".
The John Mellencamp song "Pink Houses" was inspired when he was driving along an overpass on the way home to Bloomington, Indiana from the Indianapolis airport. There was an old black man sitting outside his little pink shotgun house with his cat in his arms, completely unperturbed by the traffic speeding along the highway in his front yard. “He waved, and I waved back,” Mellencamp said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “That's how 'Pink Houses' started.”. In Bruce Springsteen's song "We Take Care of Our Own", from the album Wrecking Ball, he refers to shotgun houses, singing "We take care of our own, from the shotgun shack to the Super Dome".
- Culture of the Southern United States
- Enfilade (architecture) – similar design in grand European architecture of the Baroque period
- List of house types
- Railroad apartment
- Terraced house
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The truth is that even among experts in the fields of architectural history and cultural geography, no one is exactly sure how the shotgun house came to look like it does and get that funny name.
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A projectile discharged from a gun aimed through the front door would presumably travel unimpeded through the house, and emerge from the rear; thus the derivation of the name.
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- Duncan, S. Heather (6 March 2006). "Shotgun houses, rehabilitate or replace?" (Paywall). The Macon Telegraph. p. 8.
Some city planners and even residents themselves debate the value of preserving shotgun houses. This is partly because their architecture is more unassuming than that of [nearby] antebellum homes[...]. [Some said] 'There are very few houses that can't be rehabbed cheaper than building new. And when you tear down and rebuild, you've got to charge more in rent.'
- "Historic shotgun houses renovated in downtown Macon" (Paywall). Macon Telegraph. April 16, 2008. p. A1.
Four renovated, century-old shotgun houses are expected to be completed by the end of the month[...]
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- John Hammond Jr. (Host), David Hunt (Prod., Dir.) (1991). The Search for Robert Johnson (Flash video, 52:26). Iambic Productions (Television production) (Channel 4). Event occurs at 40:08. David Honeyboy Edwards indicates a yellow shotgun house where he says Robert Johnson died.
- Browne, David (2001). Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley. HarperEntertainment. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-06-107608-4.
- Gittins, Ian (2004). Talking Heads: once in a lifetime : the stories behind every song. Hal Leonard. pp. 68–69. ISBN 978-0-634-08033-3.
- Pink Houses: John Mellencamp : Rolling Stone
- Classic Tracks: John Cougar Mellencamp's “Pink Houses”
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Shotgun houses.|
- Shotgun House (at Bywater Neighborhood Association) (includes many example photos)
- Shotgun House Project for New Orleans Discussion of appropriateness of new shotguns for rebuilding NOLA
- A New Orleans shotgun converted into a two-story three-bedroom house (the Spring 2008 This Old House project)
- Project Row Houses - An example of art and social activism, based on 22 shotgun houses rescued and renovated in Houston's Third Ward