The Shotgun House
New Orleans and architecture go together like beans and rice. The Big Easy is a city with a strong identity to its buildings and architecture. New Orleans has many types of architecture that span over 300 years. From the humble Creole Cottage to the Neoclassical Greek mansions of the Garden Dist.
This is one style of home that is commonly seen here in New Orleans and that is the “Shotgun House”. The Shotgun house is easy to identify as a house with its long and narrow size. Rooms are in a straight line from front to back with many shotgun houses not having hallways. The shotgun house is a common type of residential architecture that you will see here in New Orleans.
New Orleans boasts some of the earliest and most am of shotguns than anywhere else in America. New Orleans can have this honor because of a few different factors, ranging from simple economics to the spirit of preservation post-Katrina. When many cities were bulldozing these houses, New Orleans preserved them. The house which had become associated with poverty are now palatial homes. The simple shotgun house shelters both the working poor and the well-heeled alike here in New Orleans.
The roots of the shotgun house go all the way back to Africa, but it is in Haiti and the Caribbean that the shotgun as we know it comes into existence. A major design feature of the home directly results from architecture being shaped by the environment people live in. The tall ceilings combined with the stacked room arrangement, which have a typical layout of a living room, one or two bedrooms, ending a kitchen with a back door. Each room boasts a window which, when the doors and windows are opened, allows for maximum airflow, thus helping to keep the residents comfortable in the heat and humidity.
While the name “shotgun” commonly is to derive from the ability to open both front and back doors and because of the straight-line configuration you could, in theory, fire a shotgun from the front door and it would safely sail to exit out the backdoor. There are also a couple of websites that mention “shogon” as meaning “God’s House” in “West African” which is very problematic. There are at least 4 different major languages in West Africa, Swahili, Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa, of which the term “God’s House” does not show up as “shogon”. The closest sounding word to “shogon” is “Hougan” which is the priest in Haitian Vodou. Linguistically, it is very difficult to nail down the exact root of the word “shotgun” so we can leave that open to interpretation.
We attribute this style of home to the African and Afro-Caribbean communities that brought the style to New Orleans in the 1790s. This is when the successful slave rebellion in San Domingue saw a large influx of people escaping the chaos of what is now present-day Haiti. Because of the proximity of New Orleans to Haiti plus the added benefit of having a French-speaking population, it is easy to see why New Orleans was the principal port for the immigrants from Haiti. Both white and Free People of Color (FPC) left because of the uncertainty after the rebellion, so the shotgun migrated with the people of Haiti. We found examples of early shotguns in Key West and Ybor City in Tampa that are the other areas where both Haitian immigrants and shotgun-style homes settled. From these cities, the shotgun style home grew in popularity, especially in the South.
Dealing With The Heat
The rooms typically have high ceilings which pull the heat off the floor, which helps with cooling. The early settlers also figured out raising the houses off the ground helped with dampness along with windows, which aids even more with airflow. It is only when urban development meant putting as many homes on narrow lots; the windows became less about airflow than about socializing with neighbors.
Indoor Plumbing To The Rescue
Because of the oldest examples of shotgun houses being built in the 1790s to early 1800s, they built them without indoor plumbing. Have no fear, either you can add indoor plumbing by adding an addition to the back or side. Later on, designers would build a small hallway with the bathroom before the kitchen. Your bathroom could be as elaborate or as basic as your budget and tastes allow.
The rooms stayed warm with a shared fireplace that would warm the interior walls between the rooms with a shared chimney. The kitchen normally had its own chimney to help remove heat and smoke.
The More You Know
Shotgun houses originally were popular with both the middle class and less affluent people. The simple, rectangular design has a lot of pros and one con. The biggest pro? Airflow! The raised floors, high ceilings, combined with doors and windows to allow for modest comfort. The big con? Privacy! The early Creoles did not have the same ideas about privacy as we do today. Walking through a bedroom with your dinner to go to the front parlor would be normal. This lack of privacy would become one reason shotguns fell out of favor, especially for growing families.
They would typically nicely appoint shotgun homes with crown moldings, brackets, gables, and even stained glass dormer windows. This simple type of home allowed for so much style and ornamentation, both inside and outside.
The modern shotgun fell out of favor for not just a lack of privacy but for also being associated with poverty. Many cities bulldozed shotguns in the name of “progress” and “urban renewal” in the1960’s and 1970s with historic homes being hauled away. The spirit of Preservation grew post-Katrina, with many shotguns being rehabbed.
Types Of Shotgun Houses
Shotgun houses come in three different types with several styles to decorate those types with. Those three types are the single shotgun, the double shotgun, and the camelback which can be found on both single and double shotguns.
The earliest example of the shotgun is the single shotgun which was brought here to New Orleans via Haiti and the Afro-Caribbean peoples in the 1800s. This style of building maintained in popularity, with examples being built until the 1940s.
This is a two-family configuration that started in the 1840s and had a solid 100 year run as a popular building style here in New Orleans. Double shotguns started out as a way for extended families to live together, yet have privacy. Aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, and even parents sharing a home meant that kids would always have some kind of sitter and sometimes built-in friends. Shared backyards meant close family ties of shared meals, gardening, and relaxation while children play. If the double was lucky enough to have a porch or even a stoop to gather street side to let the free entertainment of the neighborhood play out. A double shotgun could also mean a nice income with renting out half to help with expenses. Double shotguns now are being converted into single-family residences with the shotguns ability to be reconfigured to allow for a more modern idea of privacy and modern conveniences.
Camelback shotguns are any shotgun, be it single or double, that has a partial second floor on the back of the house. The height of popularity of this building style was the 1880s to the 1920s, with the camelback still being popular in buildings in New Orleans neighborhoods. There is a legend that the camelback came around because of a tax on how many stories a building was. Unfortunately, this legend is false as New Orleans has only had one tax on architecture and that was for 6 very unpopular months in 1794 when the short-lived “Chimney Tax” for street lighting hit the books. The tax was so unpopular that it only lasted 6 months with the tax on bread paying for the lights. After that, it only based the tax on the market value of the building, not on the architectural features.
A STYLE IS BORN
Shotgun describes the type of house, but the style is how the outside looks. The city has a history that dates back over 300 years, with eras of growth, poverty, and wars that shaped the city. We can see these eras of growth in the buildings themselves similar to rings on a tree.
Post Fires New Orleans
With the new Spanish building codes that shaped what is now the French Quarter and historic neighborhoods, Colonial New Orleans maintained the European flavor. It is only after the Louisiana Purchase and Louisiana being accepted as a state of America do we see new styles of architecture show up.
Greek Revival Shotguns
The Neoclassical Age with the Greek Revival style being embraced by politicians and architects of the early 1800s. Greek Revival Shotguns have all the appearances of a Greek temple with a clean, unornamented parapet roofline that normally has teeth like dentils along the roofline trim. The transom over the front door also gives off the appearance of a Greek parapet, with the Greek key being prominent throughout. Full-length windows and shutters are framed by 4 Doric pillars that extend the roofline to a gallery porch. The clean lines of the Greek Revival shotgun stay popular until the start of the Civil War in the early 1860s.
Keeping Up with the Victorians
After decades of Greek architecture and the horrors of war, Americans wanted to get away from the rigid designs that define Greek architecture. The Victorians wanted a more vibrant use of colors and elaborate designs to differentiate themselves from the more conservative Greek designs. There was also an upgrade in technology, steam mills mass-produced elaborate woodworking building materials. This made decorating both beautiful and affordable. Not only were they being mass-produced, but they were also easily available in catalogs and delivered to your job site.
The Italianate style becomes popular in the late 1850s but really gains traction post-war. Italianate architecture has a gently sloping roofline that has corbels or brackets holding up the deep eaves. The windows lose their Greek lines to have the softer, rounder lines of the Italian styles. Shutters even become rounded to match their windows. The exterior of the house is normally stucco or brick, with stone also being used.
The Victorians embraced multiple styles, with many even mixing various styles to make their homes truly unique. These decades saw the use of woodcut out Eastlake Trim, cast iron, vibrant colors, more complex columns, and the embracing of nature.
Getting Some Eastlake Trim
The Eastlake Double Shotgun is a beautiful example of how the Victorians flaunted their wealth, taste, or sometimes lack of it. In 1868, Charles Locke Eastlake wrote his book about furniture design that had drawings of carved and wood cutouts that would inspire designers and builders alike. The Eastlake shotgun really showcases what wood, paint, and a clever craftsperson can achieve. They replaced the temple-like parapets with gables, with sunburst patterns becoming popular. The roofline ditches the dentils to add the Eastlake trim, wood cutouts, spindles, and wooden piecework. The large columns go on a diet to become the skinnier colonette, which allows the more decorative features to be easily seen. Many Eastlake double shotguns have an extended porch which was normally decorated with a turned wood balustrade. It is easy to see why this style of double shotgun became so popular with New Orleans.
The bracket style single shotgun is another popular building style of the Victorian age. You can decorate brackets adorning the roofline as simple or ornate as your taste and budget allow. The “gable on hip” roof normally has a small window, which can be plain or ornate. The roofline normally extends out, some extend just enough for a sun/rain block to a full front porch. We still need transoms for airflow with windows switching to 2 over 4s flanked by louvered shutters.
What Was Old Is New Again
Enter the Neoclassical Revival. “Neo” means new and at the 1893 Chicago World’s fair, this style was debuted. The colors used for the past few years were now feeling heavy and the all-white became popular again. This kicked off the “American Renaissance” and the Neoclassical Revival Shotgun house would be extremely popular for the next 40 plus years.
They trade the Greek lines for Italianate with skinnier columns, gabled roofs, with porches and galleries now located on the front only. Portico porches also become very popular during this time. There is also a mixing of Greek and Italianate designs with many homes blending the two styles seamlessly.
Arts And Crafts Time
The Arts and Crafts movement started in the mid-1800s in the UK. The British wanted to embrace craftsmanship and avoid machine or mass-produced fixtures. This is when the Bungalow style of shotgun became a very common sight in many New Orleans neighborhoods. The name “bungalow” comes from the Hindu word “Bangla” which roughly means “a low house surrounded by porches”. The style came to the shores of California in the early 1900s and quickly spread in popularity.
The triple columns easily identify the bungalow style on the front of the house. Bungalow columns are now round or squared and normally sit on stucco or brick pedestals. The rafters are usually visible and the doors and windows are multi-pane sidelights and transoms. You can comfortably and beautifully be “California Dreaming” with these beautiful homes.
The Arts and Crafts movement came to the American shores where the ideals of individualism and creativity found fertile ground. In an ironic twist, Americans didn’t have problems with mass-produced fixtures and even including mass-produced entire homes shipped via train in a kit.
Americans did embrace the Arts and Crafts ideals of using local materials and individualism. The Bungalow style imported to America embraced this style of architecture with open arms and is one of the most associated styles of homes in this style.
The Future Of The Shotgun House
The future is still looking bright for this uniquely Afro-Caribbean style of home. New Orleans uniquely narrow lots combined with the heat and humidity are a perfect combination. One of the few bright spots to Katrina and gentrification embraced the shotgun home in the Post-Katrina New New Orleans. Saving these homes from bulldozers and neglect by being rehabilitated and brought back or even exceeding their former glory. There have even been many new shotgun style homes being built, as well as the humble camelback stepping back in the spotlight.
So the next time you are exploring the French Quarter and surrounding neighborhoods, take a moment to enjoy this beautiful style of home. Like many a New Orleans transplant, this home flourished in a unique environment that can only be New Orleans.
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