What's a shotgun house?

Hurricane Katrina caused not only a loss of life, but also a loss of one of New Orleans' trademark architectural styles, the shotgun house.
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When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005, the world watched in horror as some 1,800 people lost their lives in the storm and the levee breaks that followed [source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. As the waters receded and the city began the effort of restoring itself, it became apparent that much of the city's great architecture would also be lost.

Among this architecture is a New Orleans signature known as the shotgun house. This style of house is very simple: A typical shotgun house is long and narrow and often don't have windows on the sides (though they almost always do along the front or back) because of the houses' extremely close proximity to one another. Yet, for all of their outward modesty, shotgun houses hold little surprises for those who care to look beyond their fa├žades. Ornate features are a characteristic of the shotgun house that lend an air of dignity to an otherwise modest home.


The origins of the shotgun house remain something of a mystery. The architecture was brought to America by Haitian refugees fleeing the revolt led by Toussaint L'Ouverture at the beginning of the 19th century. The first shotgun homes in the United States were erected in New Orleans. The structure began to catch on and spread throughout the country during its heyday between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. As time went on, the shotgun house came to be associated with the struggle of African-Americans to make a life for themselves in the U.S. and still stands as a major contribution to the American architectural landscape. "The significance of the shotgun house rests not only on its uniqueness as an architectural form but also in its manifestations as an artifact of cultural memory which served as a strategy for survival," writes historian Denise Andrews [source: Andrews]. The shotgun house may be even more closely tied to Africa: Some historians suggest that the house may be modeled upon a traditional West African home. (We'll explore that on the next page.)

What is it about these modest homes that have become so emblematic of the American South and the African-American experience? The answer lies in both the shotgun house's design and the lore that surrounds it.


Layout, Lore and Design of Shotgun Houses

shotgun house at night
The long, narrow layout of the shotgun house is such that a person could shoot through the front and out the back door without hitting a wall -- supposedly.
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As is the case with most things rooted in the distant past, uncertain lore surrounding shotgun houses is often taken as fact. One prominent example is the story surrounding the name for this style of architecture. The popular explanation for the style's name is found in its layout: Shotgun houses are a one-story row of rooms, one behind the other, following a single line perpendicular to the street. So, with all of the doors in the house following a single line as well, a person shooting a shotgun through the front door could reasonably expect the shot to pass through the house and out the back door without touching a wall.

The explanation is a quaint one, and would likely have made sense for the Haitian homes upon which the American shotgun house design is based. Once the homes were erected in the U.S., however, doors were usually placed off center, so that a person conducting such an experiment would've probably taken a sizable chunk out of the rear wall of the front room. (Another etymological explanation is that the shotgun house takes its name from that aforementioned West African style of home. These homes were called "shogun" or "God's house" in the Yoruba language [source: Andrews].)


Shotgun houses might sound kind of boring -- a few rooms one story high in a single row, with no windows on their sides. Indeed, shotgun houses would be somewhat plain if not for the aforementioned custom of embellishing them with ornate fixtures. Brackets that hold the roof aloft are usually carved intricately, after European tastes in the Victorian or Greek Revival fashions. Vent covers are intricately designed and the front windows and doors are adorned with shutters.

Despite their size, the rooms in shotgun houses are surprisingly large, usually around 14 square feet (1.3 square meters). A modified version of the shotgun house, the double shotgun, was later developed for larger families and can serve as a duplex for more than one family. These homes bear the same style as the traditional shotgun house, except that the double shotgun is essentially two single shotgun homes fused together side by side. They share a single roof and doors that connect the adjoining parallel rooms.

The shotgun house brought a new home design concept to the United States -- the porch. The overhanging roof along the front of the house created a stoop where a family could congregate on a hot evening. The front of a traditional shotgun house would usually encroach upon the sidewalk, and the house's porch gave rise to the longstanding New Orleans custom of visiting outside with neighbors in the evening.


The Cultural Legacy of Shotgun Houses

Because of their cultural legacy, many shotgun houses -- like this one in New Orleans -- are being preserved and protected.
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In a society that often places a higher value on conspicuous consumption than it does on the dignity of simplicity, it's easy to simplify the impact of the shotgun house on the African-American experience. Shotgun houses were spare and built close together. Their embellishments were modeled after those found on the Victorian homes of wealthier whites, usually located elsewhere in town.

But the very nature and design of these homes helped to strengthen the African-American community in the U.S. Because of their close proximity and porches, shotgun houses helped give rise to tight-knit neighborhoods. The shotgun house -- modest, constructed close to other homes, imported from the Caribbean and Africa -- has become somewhat emblematic of the African-American experience. Writes historian Denise Andrews: "The shotgun house represents the slaves' reaction to adversity, making sense of their new environment by modifying familiar living patterns. Cultural contact did not necessitate massive change in architecture; but rather an intelligent modification of culture" [source: Andrews].


The influence of the shotgun house would soon extend beyond the African-American community. By the beginning of the 20th century, shotgun house building kits were available on the market for $100. The structures soon began to appear in cities across the United States. Because of their simple design, shotgun houses could be erected quickly, which soon made them a common sight in the boom towns of the West. They also served as temporary (and sometimes permanent) housing following natural disasters. For example, in the days and weeks following the massive earthquake that struck San Francisco in 1906, hundreds of shotgun house kits arrived and were constructed as housing for displaced residents [source: Kislak Foundation].

New construction of shotgun houses waned in the 1920s, but many of the original structures still remain -- and are still inhabited. Others have been adopted and restored by preservation societies to serve as reminders of the role they served, not just in the African-American community, but in the U.S. as a whole.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Andrews, Denise. "The Bahamian influence on the South Florida shotgun house." Kislak Foundation. Accessed May 9, 2009.http://www.kislakfoundation.org/millennium-exhibit/andrews1.htm
  • Graham, Tom. "Shotgun house." Architectural Patrimony. March 5, 2003.http://bywater.org/Arch/shotgun.htm
  • Stokes, Stephanie. "Holy Cross St. a Lower 9th Ward work in progress." Times-Picayune. August 23, 2008.http://blog.nola.com/stephaniestokes/2008/08/
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Hurricane Katrina." Accessed May 8, 2009. http://www.hhs.gov/disasters/emergency/naturaldisasters/hurricanes/katrina/index.html
  • Santa Monica Conservancy. "Shotgun house history." Accessed May 6, 2009. http://shotgunhouse.org/history.html
  • Untitled. African American Registry. Accessed May 6, 2009. http://www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/1679/Black_architecture_still_standing_the_Shotgun_House