The New Orleans Shotgun House
New Orleans Shotgun Houses
New Orleans is considered home of the shotgun house. Shotgun houses were built from 1830-1910 and are the most common housing style throughout New Orleans. Tradition has it that if you fire a “shotgun” through the front doorway of this long, narrow home, the bullet will exit directly through the back door. The name “shotgun” may have originated from the Africa’s Southern Dahomey Fon area term, to-gun, which means, “place of assembly” or “shogun”. In West Africa “shogun” means “God’s House”. The description, probably used in New Orleans by Afro Haitian slaves, may have been misunderstood and reinterpreted as “Shotgun”. Research indicates that the style can be traced from Africa to Haitian influences on house design in New Orleans. It is closely associated with New Orleans and Creole culture. Shotgun architecture is now recognized as an African-American contribution to American architectural styles especially in the City of New Orleans. The porch on the front of these houses was quite distinct from French homes whose outdoor areas were actually interior courtyards. The front porch on shotgun houses supported interconnectedness between people and gave neighbors a strong sense of community.
Historical Perspectives of the Shotgun House
It is theorized that the shotgun style was developed as housing built by and for slaves in the early 1700’s in the West Indies with roots in West Africa. In Haiti, enslaved Africans took the architectural form common to their homeland and used local materials to build narrow buildings with gabled entrances, stucco walls, thatched roofs, and shuttered windows for privacy. When Africans in Haiti revolted in 1791, many European plantation owners fled to New Orleans, taking with them enslaved Africans. Many other free people of color migrated to New Orleans as well. This had a profound effect on the demographics of New Orleans where the black population increased. In 1810, the population of New Orleans was approximately 1/3 white, 1/3 enslaved Africans, and 1/3 free people of color, most of who had come from Haiti. Consequently, this caused a housing boom and as many of both the builders and inhabitants were Africans by way of Haiti and historians believe it is only natural they modeled the new homes after ones they left behind in their homeland. Many surviving Haitian dwellings of the period resemble the single shotgun houses of New Orleans. The city became the center for the style, and it spread throughout the South in both rural and urban areas until the early 1900’s.
Elements and Features of Shotgun Houses
Usually one-story, three to five rooms in a row with no hallways, but many with second story set at rear of house called camel-back shotgun. Shotguns are narrow rectangular structures raised on brick piers usually covered with a hipped roof on all four sides. Most have narrow front porch covered by a roof apron and supported by columns and brackets, often with lacy Victorian Era ornamentation. Shotgun houses have a variety of decorative elaborations complete with ornate combinations of cornices, eave brackets, spindles, and intricate moldings that are only found in New Orleans.
The New Orleans housing taxation structure contributed to the design of the shotgun in its region. The shotgun utilized a minimized lot frontage, when taxes were based on lot frontage, then when that was subverted by non-taxable second floor additions of space AKA the “Camel-back”, the tax was shifted to number of rooms, which equalized the taxation per square footage within a property. Consequently, neither design contains closets or hallways, which were counted as rooms.
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 making it well-suited for hot climates because one can open the front and back doors, and the breeze will flow through the entire house, and the porch provides shade for outdoor visiting.
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.
Shotgun houses come in three principal shapes: the Single Shotgun, the Double Shotgun, and the Camel-back . Each shape has several variations which 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 in a sometimes crude fashion. Shotgun houses were built-in various sizes and styles and were embellished with elements representing nearly all the architectural styles that appeared in the 1800’s. Highly stylized models were common in the Greek Revival and Italianate Styles.
- The Single Shotgun is the most typical of this style with all rooms arranged directly behind one another in a straight line without hallways and two rooms sharing a chimney on their common wall. A door and a window or two open to the street or to a small porch. Variations of the single shotgun are a two bay shotgun characterized by two facade openings and a three bay shotgun with three full length openings shown at right.
- The Double Shotgun, also called double-barrel or four-bay shotgun, essentially two shotgun houses connected to each other and sharing a central wall. The double shotgun requires less land per household than the traditional shotgun and was used extensively in poorer areas known as the “faubourgs” because it could be built with fewer materials and use less land per occupant. Chimneys are most often located at the dividing wall of the house between two rooms. It was first seen in New Orleans in 1854.
The Camel-back house, a variation of the Shotgun that has a partial second floor over the rear of the house. Camel-back 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 the second floor. The second floor contains one to four rooms. Because it was only a partial second story, most cities only taxed it as a single-story house – in fact this was a key reason for their construction.
Common New Orleans Shotgun Styles
The Greek Revival Style shotgun appeared in the 1830’s in New Orleans in response to the classical movement in the United States at the time. It strongly influenced the design of shotgun houses drawing inspiration from the architecture of ancient Greece. Greek revival houses were characterized by simplicity, i.e, a low-pitched roof concealed by a well-detailed entablature supported by rectangular Greek columns, and adorned with dentils, egg and dart molding, and modillions.
The Italianate Style shotgun house appeared during the late 1850’s in New Orleans after being introduced in the United States by way of England. The Italianate style dominated New Orleans architecture during the 1860’s and 1870’s. It was derived from the Greek Revival Style taking on a more ornate appearance which evolved into the Italianate Style reminiscent of Italian Renaissance architecture and the rural villas of Northern Italy. Italianate shotguns were very ornate and appealed to architects as well as homeowners of New Orleans. It was the style of choice for remodeling houses in the Garden District. Shotguns and camel-backs incorporate elements of the Italianate Style during the late Antebellum Period (1830-1862) and was characterized by low-pitched roofs, a decorative entablature and parapet over the front porch supported by Doric columns and decorative quoins. Decorative quoins were ornamental square on the outer edges of the facade. Windows, double hung type, were fitted with molded cornices on top. Doors were surrounded by deep cornices and paneled pilasters. By the 1880 Italianate shotgun houses began to adopt Eastlake and Queen Anne characteristics. Bracketed styles also came into fashion during that same period, overlapping with Eastlake Style.
Eastlake Style Shotgun houses came into vogue during the Late Victorian Period in the 1880’s. Named after English architect Charles Locke Eastlake, who popularized the style through his furniture design books, the style was characterized by spindles on the fronts, superfluous roof gables elaborately decorated with a variety of motifs such as sunbursts, fantails, and stained glass gable windows, and turned wood balusters in the shape of table legs on the porches. Many neighborhoods in New Orleans are lined with rows of wood framed Eastlake shotguns on brick piers. Both doors and windows have ornate cornices and porches have turned wood balusters. By this time, Eastlake style shotguns gain popularity and with all this craftsmanship involved in their dressing up, shotguns belonged to the more affluent.
The Bracket Style Shotgun house became one of the most common house types in New Orleans from about 1880 to 1905. This shotgun style was characterized by large brackets supporting a hip roof overhang and was constructed of wood-frame with weatherboard siding and full length windows on the front. The overhangs varied from two to six feet. The brackets, most often found in the mill work catalogs of the period, were generally constructed of cypress. Bracket style shotguns were built three or four houses in a row and each was painted a different color and the style was a blending of late Victorian and Italianate features . Other elements popular during this period were turned balusters, decorative shingles in roof gables, sunburst patterns, and stained glass in doors and attic windows.
The Demise and Revival of the Shotgun House
Construction and popularity of the shotgun house slow down in the early 1900’s due to the advent of the mass-produced automobile and development of the air conditioning unit coming to a halt after World War II when demand for new suburban ranch style houses with garages and carports increased. The shotgun later became a symbol of poverty during the 1950’s and 1960’s and viewed as substandard housing after affluent homeowners left for the suburbs. This flight out of the city led to the demise and deterioration of shotgun houses which became associated with blue-collar neighborhoods know as the Creole fabourgs in New Orleans.The shotgun’s role in the New Orleans history has now become recognized by historic districts and preservationists as historically important playing a role in the architecture, folklore, and culture of the city.
Today, shotgun houses are being preserved because of their historical significance. Properties values have increased as wealthier people began to buy the deteriorated shotguns investing thousands of dollars in improvements and renovations. It can be seen throughout the city especially in low-income areas that were once considered impoverished. The shotgun revival movement begun as these properties began to gain historical significance advocated by the New Orleans Historic Districts and Landmarks Commission paired with the Preservation Resource Center’s incentives extended to homeowners wishing to renovate and make the homes livable and affordable abiding by current housing and building code standards.
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