Society has a tendency to write off working class neighborhoods as lacking in creativity and artistry. Are we missing something?
Vernacular architecture is that which uses local construction materials to create structures that fulfill local needs and reflect local traditions, rather than shipping in materials and designs to create something more cosmopolitan. There is often beauty and satisfying frugality in even the simplest of these forms and it seems a shame that globalization should obliterate them. On the other hand, interesting things can happen when traditions merge and are shared–think of Moorish influences in Spain.
“You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack”
—Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime
The shotgun house was the most popular type of house in the Southern United States from the end of the Civil War through the 1920s. Frequently no more than twelve feet wide, with an exterior door in front and another in back and one room following the next without hallways, these homes were designed to save space and to allow people to live close to the workplace in an era before the automobile had taken hold. American cities were growing as people immigrated from rural areas and foreign countries in response to the promise of the American dream. More housing was needed quickly and it couldn’t cost an arm and a leg.
The first shotgun houses were built in New Orleans, Louisiana, where, at the time, taxation was based on lot frontage. The wider the lot, the higher the taxes paid. Many of these homes were built and occupied by Haitian refugees. Historians believe that the origin of the design itself may be Caribbean or West African, although earlier generations seemed loathe to acknowledge these roots, especially as the shotgun was replicated all over the country. At first this came from unwillingness to recognize the creativity and industry of people of African descent, later, after the style went out of fashion, it deepened into a desire to ignore these houses and the people who lived in them. Even today that stigma remains, although there is some appreciation for the historic importance of these buildings and their contribution to the American dream and to humanity in general. This is leading to the renovation of some of these classic homes.
A builder often put up an entire block of shotgun houses at once, creating a number of identical domiciles, simple and inexpensive, which could be improved and decorated by the occupants. From exquisitely crafted wood and stone work to coats of bright paint, there is no lack of imagination or variety in their ornamentation, which may feature Classical or Victorian flourishes. This provided not only a way for people to show pride and love for their homes, but also a way for them to proclaim their financial success and stability. Originally some of these homes would have been trimmed with African motifs, but, sadly, those have been quietly replaced with more “polite” and “acceptable” decorations. What richness of history have we lost?
Legend has it that spirits are drawn to these houses because they can pass right through them, leading some builders to vary the original design by staggering the doors to confuse wandering souls. So much for popular wisdom that the incorporeal can walk through walls. This might also be the origin of the term shotgun house, since, if all the doors were open, a bullet fired in the front door would leave by the back door. Everything about these houses is colorful!
Shotgun houses were one of the first designs in the United States to feature a porch. Neighbors, who were already living in close proximity, would gather on these porches, creating a close knit community that modern day suburbia can’t even imagine.
Some shotgun houses feature a two story area in the rear of the house. These are known as camelback houses.
Another variation on the shotgun house was the double, or double-barrel, shotgun house. Two homes share a central wall, allowing two families to be housed on a single lot. It’s an early form of the modern duplex.
The shotgun design was certainly not limited to New Orleans, but flourished in hot and humid climates before the advent of air conditioning. If the doors were left open, a breeze could cool down the entire house, supposing it was blowing in the right direction. This easy ventilation is even more important in models that lack side windows, as some of the earliest did.
These fascinating buildings deserve to be cherished not only for their place in history, but because they have been and continue to be home.