Shotgun Houses in New Orleans
A Brief History of the Shotgun House In New Orleans
A Popular New Orleans Home
New Orleans and architecture go together like beans and rice. New Orleans is a city that has a strong identity in its architecture. Locals and visitors alike enjoy the visual feast that makes up our city’s skyline. From the humble Creole Cottage to the towering mansions of the Garden District. New Orleans can boast some of the most diverse housing stock in the country.
One style of homes that you will see here in New Orleans is the “Shotgun House”. The Shotgun house is easy to identify with its narrow and rectangular design. The stacked rooms are in a straight line from front to back, normally without hallways. The location of the kitchen will determine if the bedrooms would be in the back of the house or the front. The biggest drawback to shotguns is privacy or the lack of it.
The shotgun house is a common residential architecture that you will see here in New Orleans. This is because New Orleans boasts some of the most numbers of shotguns anywhere else in America. New Orleans can have this honor due to a few different factors. These range from simple economics to the spirit of preservation post-Katrina.
Many cities bulldozed this style of home, which came to symbolize poverty. Thankfully, the spirit of preservation in New Orleans has allowed these homes to thrive here. The shotgun house in New Orleans can range from simple to palatial, with this home housing the poor and well off alike.
Out Of Africa And Caribbean, A House Is Born
The roots of the shotgun house go all the way back to Africa. The enslaved African population brought the style to the Caribbean via the slave trade. The people of the Caribbean brought the style with them to the American shores starting in the 1790s. This makes the shotgun house one of Africa’s most important architectural contributions.
The features of the shotgun directly result from the environment shaping architect. To combat heat and humidity, tall ceilings, large windows, and an open design allow for max airflow. Combined with a raised foundation, these features allowed residents to be comfortable in the humid conditions of the Caribbean and Southern US.
The legend of the shotgun house is almost as popular as the house itself. The story has it that the name “shotgun” comes from the fact you can shoot a shotgun from the front door to the back door and not hit anything.
There are also a few websites that mention “shogon” as the meaning of “God’s House” in “West Africa”. This is problematic for a few reasons. One, there are at least 4 major languages in West Africa: Swahili, Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa. None of these languages does the term “God’s House” 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” to describe this style of housing. We can say for certain it doesn’t arrive from “God’s House” in “West Africa” and I doubt enough people are firing weapons inside their homes to warrant the name. This will have to be chalked up to having received the name from several sources.
The rooms stayed warm with a shared fireplace with the interior walls. The kitchen normally had its own chimney to help remove heat and smoke. The simple, rectangular design has a lot of pros and one large con. The biggest pro? Airflow! 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 that shotguns fell out of favor. This was especially true for growing families.
The simple design of the shotgun house allows the owner to show off their taste and budget. Greek columns, decorated brackets, even stained glass windows grace these homes. Unfortunately, it was this simple design that brought its downfall in much of America. The design became associated with poverty and even racism, which in the spirit of “progress” and “urban renewal” razed many homes during the 1960s and 70s. The spirit of preservation in a Post Katrina New Orleans allowed the shotgun to once again become popular. Every neighborhood in New Orleans has renovated shotguns with many being almost extravagant.
Types of Shotgun Houses
Shotgun houses come in two different types with several styles to decorate with. Those two types are the single and double shotgun. The camelback is both a type and a style. You can add a camelback to any of these types to add more space and privacy.
Single Double and Camelback Oh My
The early 1800s is when we see the earliest examples of the single shotgun here in New Orleans. Many of the immigrants from Haiti settled in New Orleans, where they brought the shotgun house with them. The single shotgun was a popular building type until the 1940s, when for many reasons it went out of style. In the modern era, the single shotgun is still a popular building type with modern builds being erected.
The single shotgun house is a single-family residence that has many interior designs to allow for modern-day sensibilities. Private bedrooms, modern kitchens, and even central air have made the single shotgun a popular home for many adults and even families.
This is a two-family configuration that started in the 1840s. This style had a solid 100 year run as a popular building style here in New Orleans before it too fell out of favor. Double shotguns started out as a way for extended families to live together yet have privacy. Aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, and even grandparents would share a double home. This meant that kids would always have some kind of sitter and sometimes built-in friends. These shared backyards would host meals, friends, and play for the children. A lucky double shotgun may have a front porch to watch the free entertainment of the streets.
This is a two-family configuration that started in the 1840s. This style had a solid 100 year run as a popular building style here in New Orleans before it too fell out of favor. Double shotguns started out as a way for extended families to live together yet have privacy. Aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, and even grandparents would share a double home. This meant that kids would always have some kind of sitter and sometimes built in friends. These shared backyards would host meals, friends, and play for the children. A lucky double shotgun may have a front porch to watch the free entertainment of the streets.
A double shotgun could also mean a nice income with renting out half to help with expenses. There is a trend with converting a double shotgun into a single-family house. This trend is allowing people to redesign their double to allow for more privacy. Unfortunately, losing multi-family housing has put a strain on the rental and real estate markets where rent and housing have gone up exponentially post Katrina.
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 today. Camelbacks allow for privacy, more bedrooms, and even extra room for home offices and playrooms.
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. The value of the building decides how taxes are levied, not the actual building.
Let’s Talk About Style
Early New Orleans
Shotgun describes the house, but the style is how the outside looks. New Orleans is over 300 years old with eras of growth, poverty, disasters, and wars that shaped the city. We can see these eras of growth and renewal in the buildings themselves, like rings on a tree.
Post-Fire New Orleans
The two fires in 1788 and 1794 left much of the city destroyed because of several mitigating factors. Out of the literal ashes rose a new city built with brick and masonry instead of flammable wood. It is these new Spanish building codes that shaped what is now the French Quarter. By the early 1800s, they rebuilt New Orleans as a European city.
The Haitian immigrants found themselves at the beginning of this transformation. They could design and build homes capable of making the heat bearable. The design quickly took off with the shotgun house, making its first home in and around the Quarter.
New Orleans wasn’t a very prosperous colony, as we had no real natural resources. Most colonies have such things as gold, diamonds, or even good farming. New Orleans did not have any of those assets, but it had a port. It was the port that made New Orleans the mild success that it was. It was because farmers/trappers west of the Appalachians needing to get their goods to market. Settlers would float their goods down the Mississippi River to sell here in New Orleans. Engines weren’t a thing yet, so this meant that a long walk home was how they back home. They would sell their boats before heading back. The wood from the boats would be repurposed into building materials. “Barge wood” was a very popular type of wood seen in many homes.
The early American government would disagree with both France and Spain. This would lead to the port of Orleans being closed off to the Americans. The Port of Orleans and control of the Mississippi River were the catalyst for buying Louisiana. The lucrative port was now open to Americans who came here in droves. This influx of cash and new businesses coincided with the steam engine. Steamboats now went both down and up the Mississippi with New Orleans becoming a major metro city.
Get Thee To The Greek
Greek Revival Shotguns
This is a very popular style of the shotgun home, especially in the Uptown neighborhoods. The Neoclassical Age rose out of the ashes of the Baroque and Rococo styles. The Neoclassical represented throwing off the yoke of monarchy and embracing the ideas of democracy of the Greeks. The ideals of Greece went beyond democracy, but also into architecture. The Neoclassical style became popular in the early 1800s. This coincided with Americans who made this style of shotgun popular.
The Greek Revival Shotgun has all the appearances of a Greek temple. The parapet is clean and unadorned except for teeth like dentils along the roofline. The parapet extends itself to the transoms above doors and windows. 4 Doric pillars will extend the roofline to the gallery porch. The Neoclassical revival includes the Greek Key in the designs. 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
The Civil War ended, leaving New Orleans wanting something different. They now considered the Neoclassical architecture cold and rigid, and the Victorians wanted vibrant use of color and elaborate designs. The Victorians wanted to be more individualistic and to separate their homes from their neighbors. New technologies allowed woodworking to be mass-produced. This allowed locals to pick a design from a catalog that trains would deliver to the city.
The Italianate style roars into popularity post Civil War. Italianate architecture has a gently sloping roofline that has corbels or brackets. The corbels or brackets hold up the deep eaves of the roofline. The windows lose their Greek lines to have the softer rounder transoms and shutters. Stucco or brick was popular to give the home the feel of a Roman villa.
The Victorians embraced many styles of different styles of architecture. They would even mix various styles to make their homes unique. The only restraints you had were budget and what was available locally or could be shipped in. These decades saw the use of Eastlake Trim, cast iron, vibrant colors, more complex columns, and the embracing of nature.
Get 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 on furniture design. The book had drawings of carved and wood cutouts that would inspire designers and builders alike.
The Eastlake Shotgun showcases what wood, paint, and a clever craftsperson can achieve. The temple-like parapets are replaced with gables, with sunburst patterns becoming popular. The roofline ditches the dentils to add the Eastlake trim. We now see wood cutouts, spindles, and wooden piecework decorating rooflines. The large columns go on a diet to become the skinnier colonette. The skinnier columns allowed the rest of the house to be front and centered, with the columns being less prominent. Many Eastlake double shotguns have an extended porch which was 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 shotgun is another popular building style of the Victorian age. Your budget and taste will dictate how your gable looks. You can have contrast paint or plain, your budget or taste dictates this. The “gable on hip” roof has a small window that can be plain or ornate. The roofline extends out, to some extent enough for a sun/rain block to a full front porch. They still needed transoms and large windows for cooling, but have added more decorations.
What is old is new again with the Neoclassical Revival. “Neo” means new and the style was introduced during the 1893 Chicago World’s fair. Many Victorians did not embrace the vibrant colors and did not want to stand out. This is when “new” classical white became popular again. The “American Renaissance” is now all the rage, and the Neoclassical Revival shotgun is trending. In the next 40 years, this style of shotgun would be the most popular shotgun built.
The softer lines of the Italianate style take over from the harsher Greek lines. Portico porches become popular, allowing residents to enjoy the afternoon breezes. Many homes also blended both the Greek and Italianate styles into one seamless style.
It’s Arts And Crafts Time
The Arts and Crafts movement started in the mid-1800s in Great Britain. The style was for those who wanted to embrace craftsmanship and to avoid machine or mass-produced fixtures. The movement came to the American shores, where the ideals of individualism and creativity found fertile grounds. In an ironic twist, Americans didn’t have problems with mass-produced fixtures. Entire homes would be mass-produced and shipped via kits to eager Americans.
The Americans did embrace the Arts and Crafts philosophy of individualism and using local materials. There are 3 fundamental characteristics of the Arts and Crafts style, using the inherent beauty of the material and nature as inspiration. The most important idea was that beauty can be found in a simple, utilitarian style.
Therefore, the Arts and Crafts movement was an important design style. It allowed the middle-class and working families to have a home that was beautiful yet could be easily maintained. The Arts and Crafts movement also brought the “bungalow” to America. The style started on the West Coast, especially along the California coastline. The simple yet open design of the bungalow made it a favorite here in New Orleans. Many of the homes of the Arts and Crafts style use the bungalow as inspiration.
The Bungalow style of shotgun home is a very common site 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 porches were a major plus as a raised porch would be an escape from the heat.
The columns can now be round or squared and sitting on stucco or brick pedestals, with 3 being a typical number. Beams and rafters are often exposed and incorporated into the design. Transoms are still important for airflow, with dormer windows decorating the sloping roofline. Stained glass is a beautiful addition that is another major design seen in the Arts and Crafts home.
The Future Of The Shotugun
The future is still looking bright for this Afro-Caribbean style of home. New Orleans’ narrow lots combined with the heat and humidity are the perfect combination to showcase this unique home. One of the few bright spots to Post-Katrina New Orleans has been the reemergence of the shotgun home. This type of home was saved from bulldozers and neglect in the spirit of rebuilding. Not only was the shotgun home saved, but many shotgun homes are being built. The camelback has re-surged in popularity in these “new builds”.
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 the unique environment that can only be New Orleans.
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