To view this page ensure that Adobe Flash Player version 11.1.0 or greater is installed.
SPOTLIGHT | streetscapes Geography of the shotgun house Beyond New Orleans, shotguns can be found throughout the lower Mississippi Valley BY Richard Campanella FEW ELEMENTS of the New Orleans cityscape speak to the in- tersection of architecture, sociology and geography so well as the shotgun house. Once scorned, now cherished, shotguns shed light on patterns of cultural diffusion, class and residential settlement, social preferences for living space and construction methods. The shotgun house is not an architectural style; rather, it is a structural typology — what folklorist John Michael Vlach described as “a philoso- phy of space, a culturally determined sense of dimension.” A typology, or type, may be draped in any style. Thus we have shotgun houses adorned in Italianate, Eastlake and other styles, just as there are Creole and Feder- alist style townhouses and Spanish colonial and Greek Revival cottages. Tradition holds that the name “shotgun” derives from the notion of firing bird shot through the front door and out the rear without touching a wall, a rustic allusion to its linearity and room-to-room connectivity. The term itself postdates the shotgun’s late-19th-centu- ry heyday, not appearing in print until the early 20th century. Vlach defined the prototypical shotgun as “a one-room wide, one-story high building with two or more rooms, oriented perpen- dicularly to the road with its front door in the gable end, [although] aspects such as size, proportion, roofing, porches, appendages, foun- dations, trim and decoration” vary widely. Its most striking exteri- or trait is its elongated shape, usually three to six times longer than wide. Inside, what is salient is the lack of hallways: occupants need to walk through private rooms to access other rooms. Theory contends that cultures that produced shotgun houses (and other residences without hallways, such as Creole cottag- es) tended to be more gregari- ous, or at least unwilling to sacri- fice valuable living space for the purpose of occasional passage. Cultures that valued privacy, on the other hand, were willing to make this trade-off. Note, for example, how privacy-conscious peoples of Anglo-Saxon descent who arrived to New Orleans in the early 19th century brought with them the American cen- ter-hall cottage and side-hall townhouse, in preference over local Creole designs. Academic interest in the shot- gun house dates from LSU ge- ographer Fred B. Kniffen’s field research in the 1930s on Loui- siana folk housing. He and oth- er researchers have proposed a number of hypotheses explaining the origin and distribution of this distinctive house type. One theory, popular with tour guides and am- ateur house-watchers, holds that shotgun houses were designed in New Orleans in response to a real estate tax based on frontage rather than square footage, motivating narrow structures. There’s one major problem with this theory: no one can seem to find that tax code. Could the shotgun be an architectural response to narrow urban lots? Indeed, you can squeeze in more structures with a slender design. But why then do we see shotguns in rural fields with no such spatial restraints? Could it have evolved from indigenous palmetto houses or Choctaw huts? Unlikely, given their appearance in the Caribbean and beyond. Could it have been independently invented? Roberts & Company, a New Orleans sash and door fabricator formed in 1856, developed blueprints for prefabricated shotgun-like houses from the 1860s to 1870s and even won awards for them at international expositions. But then why do we see “long houses” in the rear of the French Quar- ter and in Faubourg Tremé as early as the 1810s? Or, alternately, did the shotgun diffuse from the Old World as peo- ples moved across the Atlantic and brought with them their building culture, just as they brought their language, religion and foodways? Vlach noted the abundance of shotgun-like long houses in the West Indies, and traced their essential form to the enslaved populations of Saint Domingue (now Haiti), who had been removed from the west- ern and central African regions of Guinea and Angola. His research identified a gable-roofed housing stock indigenous to the Yoruba peoples, which he linked to similar structures in modern Haiti with comparable rectangu- lar shapes, room juxtapo- sitions and ceiling heights. Vlach hypothesizes that the 1809 exodus of Hai- tians to New Orleans after the St. Domingue slave in- surrection of 1791 to 1803 brought this vernacular house type to the banks of the Mississippi River. “Hai- tian émigrés had only to continue in Louisiana the same life they had known in St. Domingue,” he wrote. “The shotgun house of Port-au-Prince became, quite directly, the shotgun house of New Orleans.” The distribution of shot- PHOTOS BY DAVIS ALLEN 12 PRESERVATION IN PRINT • www.prcno.org MARCH 2019