What Is a Shotgun House?
The quintessential New Orleans house style is notable not only because of its extremely narrow footprint but also its intriguing name.
New Orleans is full of architecturally diverse homes, but one building style is more common than most, and forever linked with the Southern city’s history: the shotgun. Shotgun houses are charming, modest homes instantly recognizable for how narrow they are.
Shotgun houses aren’t limited to New Orleans—they’re seen in many cities across the South—but no matter where they are, they share similar characteristics. Shotgun houses are small, single-story houses that are only one room wide (typically no more than 12 feet across) and 2–4 rooms deep without any hallway—meaning you have to walk through each to get to the next.
The floor plan of historic shotgun houses typically went this way: The living room would be at the front of the house, followed by one or two bedrooms, with the kitchen at the back of the house. When these homes were first built in the early 1800s, bathrooms weren’t part of the house, but were often added on later in a rear or side addition.
This simple house layout was efficient and practical for the locale: The narrow design of the house made the most of cross-breezes (essential during New Orleans summers before air-conditioning), while only occupying a narrow lot, which allowed for the maximum number of houses per block. A variation on the traditional shotgun that saved even more space, known as a double-barrel shotgun, is a single building made up of two identical shotgun houses (with reverse layouts) that share a center wall. While two-story shotguns are basically unheard of, a number of later shotguns were built with what’s called a camelback addition: a partial second story on the back half of the house. This created more space for families without designating the house as a two-story dwelling, which saved owners on taxes.
As far as the exterior of shotgun houses goes, there is some variation. Most shotguns are wood-sided houses, but some are made of brick or stone. Typical of any house in New Orleans, the majority of shotgun houses are raised a few feet off the ground. The simpler and typically oldest versions of these homes have an almost flat roof that doesn’t hang over the sides of the house (meaning there’s no covered porch). Towards the end of the 19th century, at the height of the Victorian era, shotgun houses were built with more ornamentation, including a pitched roof with overhanging gable, creating a modest front porch.
So what about that name? The history behind the meaning of a shotgun isn’t crystal clear. It’s common to hear that the name came about because if all the doors of the house were open, you could fire a gun through the front door and the bullet could exit out the back door without hitting anything. Another theory is that shotgun is a corruption of togun, a West African word for house or gathering place.
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The shotgun house style originated in Haiti, where enslaved West Africans built similar dwellings based on the architecture in their homeland. Many enslaved and free Africans eventually moved from Haiti to New Orleans, bringing the building style with them. Because shotgun houses were most common in working-class neighborhoods in Southern cities, they became associated with poverty by the middle of the 20th century and weren’t very popular. In recent years, however, preservationists have reignited interest in the unique house style, working to restore these historic homes and their surrounding neighborhoods.