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: shotgun house.

Neoclassical Revival Shotgun House
Photo: Hector Sanchez

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. Here's more about this fascinatingly unique house layout and home it became popular in Louisiana.

Where Did the Name "Shotgun House" Originate?

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. In another theory, togun, a Yoruba word meaning "house or gathering place," is where it gets its name.

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 with them the building style. 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.

Double Shotgun Sunset House
Hector Manuel Sanchez

Shotgun House Exteriors

As far as the exterior of shotgun houses goes, there is some variation. Most shotguns are wood-sided houses, but brick or stone covered others. Typical of any house in New Orleans, most 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 (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.

Layout of a Shotgun House

Shotgun houses aren't limited to New Orleans—many cities across the South build these houses—but no matter where the location, 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 two to four rooms deep without any hallway, which means you have to walk through each room 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 first building these homes in the early 1800s, bathrooms weren't part of the house but were often added 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, allowing 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, several homes became what is known as a camelback addition. It is a partial second story on the back half of the house. This layout created more space for families without designing the home as a two-story dwelling, saving owners on taxes.

Preservation of Shotgun Houses

By 2002, the Preservation Resource Center's focus had moved to Holy Cross, part of the now-fabled Lower Ninth Ward. In the three years before Katrina, the PRC acquired and renovated four homes, three of which had already sold. Days before the storm, the cover of the center's magazine, Preservation in Print, had been mocked up with a photo of the fourth house. The headline: "Everything's Fine in the Lower Nine."

Crushed by a 60-ton pecan tree, this 1870s double shotgun house was the PRC's first post-storm success and became home to famed trombonist Freddie Lonzo and his wife, Nanci McVille. They called it the "Sunset House" for its clear views of the Mississippi River.

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