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Sat, 06.02.1810

The ‘Shotgun House’, Black Architecture and Heritage


The “shotgun house,” a residential house design, is celebrated on this date in 1810. It is a Black cultural architectural form that originated in the Antebellum South and was used extensively throughout the region.

Shotgun houses are prototypically long and narrow with a gable-ended entrance, one room wide, and two or three rooms deep. Some say the shotgun house is so named because one can fire a shotgun through the front door and the shot will exit out the back door without ever touching a wall.  As an example, from Mobile to Huntsville, there are literally thousands of shotgun houses scattered throughout Alabama.  It is found in both rural and urban southern areas, mainly in African American communities and neighborhoods.

The origins of the shotgun house have always been something of a mystery, despite the frequency of its occurrence. Architectural historians have often chosen either to ignore the question of the shotgun's origin or to label it an appearance of Greek revival style adopted from the urban storefront or shop into a dwelling. Black history in American Architecture is showcased in this style.

More recent studies by folklorists and cultural geographers make strong arguments for African beginnings in the case of the shotgun house of the American South.  In this country, the shotgun house had its beginnings in New Orleans in the early 19th century after thousands of free Blacks came to New Orleans from Haiti following the revolution of Toussiant L'Overture.

The Haitian shotgun form is believed to have originated in the 1700s.  In 1810, in New Orleans, the free Black population was as large as the white population. The Afro-Caribbean cultural effect on the material landscape can be seen in many ways, including architectural styles. The early New Orleans shotgun house resembles its Haitian counterpart in every detail, from height and floor space to door and window placement. The Haitian shotgun form was a blend of West African architectural styles with West Indian aboriginal architectural styles.

As the shotgun house evolved through the 19th century, it was "prettied up" with decorative elements borrowed from popular tastes of the times, from Greek Revival to Victorian gingerbread. One can find a number of examples of late 19th-century shotgun houses in larger towns and cities.  From West Africa to the Caribbean to the Gulf Coast of the Southeastern United States, this folk architectural style evolved into the vernacular shotgun house. Most fascinating of all, the name of the house type, "shotgun," may be an altered form of "togun," the African Yoruba word for "house." The shotgun house was typically used as low-cost housing for the low-income workers of the South.

Many are still in use today, and some have been restored to a level of splendor that did not exist when they were first built.

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