Shotgun geography: the history behind the famous New Orleans elongated house
Few elements of the New Orleans cityscape speak to the intersection 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 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 philosophy of space, a culturally determined sense of dimension.”
A typology, or type, may be draped in any fashion. Thus we have shotgun houses adorned in Italianate, Eastlake and other styles, just as there are Creole and Federalist 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. The term itself postdates the shotgun’s late-19th-century heyday, not appearing in print until the early 20th century.
According to some theories, cultures that produced shotgun houses (and other residences without hallways, such as Creole cottages) tended to be more gregarious, or at least unwilling to sacrifice valuable living space for the purpose of occasional passage.
Cultures that valued privacy, on the other hand, were willing to make this trade-off. When they arrived in New Orleans in the early 19th century, for example, privacy-conscious peoples of Anglo-Saxon descent brought with them the American center-hall cottage and side-hall townhouse, in preference over local Creole designs.
In the 1930s, LSU geographer Fred B. Kniffen studied shotguns as part of his field research on Louisiana folk housing. He and other researchers proposed a number of hypotheses explaining the origin and distribution of this distinctive house type.
One theory, popular with tour guides and amateur 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 limits?
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 in 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 Quarter and in Faubourg Treme as early as the 1810s?
Or, alternately, did the shotgun diffuse from the Old World as peoples 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 St. Domingue (now Haiti) who had been removed from the western 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 rectangular shapes, room juxtapositions and ceiling heights.
Vlach hypothesizes that the 1809 exodus of Haitians to New Orleans after the St. Domingue slave insurrection of 1791 to 1803 brought this vernacular house type to the banks of the Mississippi. “Haitian migrants 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 shotgun houses throughout Louisiana gives indirect support to the diffusion argument. Kniffen showed in the 1930s that shotguns generally occurred along waterways in areas that tended to be more Francophone in their culture, higher in their proportions of people of African and Creole ancestry, and older in their historical development.
Beyond state boundaries, shotguns occur throughout the lower Mississippi Valley, correlated with antebellum plantation regions and with areas that host large black populations. They also appear in interior Southern cities, most notably Louisville, Ky., which comes a distant second to New Orleans in terms of numbers and stylistic variety.
If in fact the shotgun diffused from Africa to Haiti through New Orleans and up the Mississippi and Ohio valleys, this is the distribution we would expect to see.
Cleary, poverty abets cultural factors in explaining this pattern. Simplicity of construction and conservation of resources (building materials, space) probably made the shotgun house equally attractive to poorer classes in many areas.
Indeed, it is possible that we may be artificially yoking together a wide variety of house types, unrelated in their provenance but similar in their appearance, by means of a catchy moniker coined after their historical moment.
Whatever their origins, shotgun singles and doubles came to dominate the turn-of-the-century housing stock of New Orleans’ working-class neighborhoods. Yet they were also erected as owned-occupied homes in wealthier areas, including the Garden District.
New Orleans shotguns in particular exhibited numerous variations: with hip, gable or apron roofs; with “camelbacks” to increase living space; with grand classical facades or elaborate Victorian gingerbread. The variety can be explained as a strategy to address market demand with a multitude of options in terms of space needs, fiscal constraints and stylistic preferences.
New Orleanians by the 20th century, as part of their gradual Americanization, desired more privacy than their ancestors, and increasing affluence and new technologies — such as mechanized kitchens, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, automobiles and municipal drainage — helped form new philosophies about residential space.
Professional home builders responded accordingly, some adding hallways or ells or side entrances to the shotgun, others morphing it into the bungalow form. House-buyers came to disdain the original shotgun, and it faded from new construction during the 1910s and 1920s.
A Times-Picayune writer captured the prevailing sentiment in a 1926 column: “Long, slender, shotgun houses,” he sighed, “row upon row(,) street upon street…all alike… unpainted, slick-stooped, steep-roofed, jammed up together, like lumber in a pile.”
Architectural historians also rolled their eyes at prosaic shotguns, and did not protest their demolition, even in the French Quarter, as late as the 1960s.
In recent decades, however, New Orleanians have come to appreciate the sturdy construction and exuberant embellishment of their shotgun housing stock, and now value them as a key element of the cityscape.
Thousands have since been renovated, and the shotgun has experienced a recent revival. Some homes in the Make It Right project in the Lower 9th Ward, for example, were inspired by the shotgun (although rendered in modernist style), and some pre-fabricated “Katrina Cottages” and New Urbanist homes in recently rebuilt public housing complexes are made to look like the shotguns of old.
It’s revealing to note, however, that among the renovations New Orleanians now make to their shotguns is something completely alien to their original form.
They add a hallway.
Richard Campanella, a geographer with the Tulane School of Architecture and a Monroe Fellow with the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, is the author of the forthcoming “Bourbon Street: A History” as well as “Bienville’s Dilemma,” “Geographies of New Orleans,” and other books. He may be reached through his website, firstname.lastname@example.org or @nolacampanella on Twitter.
Erol Josué is a dancer, a recording artist, a vodou priest, and an expert on the vodou religion’s culture and history.
“They beat me in the name of Jesus,” Josué sings in one song. “They burn me in the name of Jesus.”
The lyrics of this old vodou song date back to slavery days in the 18th Century, but their warning rings true today for some vodou practitioners — or vodouisants — who feel under attack. The old joke goes that Haiti is 70 percent Catholic, 30 percent Protestant and 100 percent Vodou.
For Josué, this is no joking matter. Last year, he took a government job as head of Haiti’s National Ethnology Office. He’s on a mission to get Haitians to realize that they need to embrace their vodou heritage — whether they agree or not.
Ground zero for the tension is Bwa Kayiman, a site in northern Haiti. A late-night meeting there in 1791 set in motion what would become one of history’s most successful slave revolts. It’s essentially where the country of “Haiti” was born — as a union of different tribes, faiths and languages.
“It was the moment the slaves said, ‘we’ve become Creoles today; we’re no longer African. We won’t fight to return to Africa, but for this land,” Josué said.
These days, Bwa Kayiman is a mess. On a visit with a team of ethnologists, Josué found a handful of historical sites unmarked and decaying. This is supposed to a heritage site, but buildings have been built illegally, including Protestant churches.
Josué is not happy.
“Vodou has never been a religion of conquest,” he says. “We don’t raise awareness to convert people to vodou, but to educate them about the importance of the national identity, the importance of respecting the sites, of respecting the patrimony. The churches and houses that were built on the Bwa Kayiman site is, personally, a kind of sacrilege. But it’s also an attack on the state.”
This “attack,” as Josué puts it, comes mainly from the evangelical movement. Unofficial estimates suggest about half of Haitians are Protestant these days, a rise fueled in large part by American-funded Evangelical missions, churches and schools.
Elizabeth McAlister is a Haiti scholar at Wesleyan University, and a long-time friend of Josué’s.
“The evangelical movement desires to reduce vodou entirely, if they could they would have a Christian revival and transform the country to a Christian majority,” she says.
McAlister says there’s no question that foreign religious influence is affecting Haitians’ attitudes about vodou but she says that even many Haitians feel the vodou religion and culture is something they would rather leave in the past.
“Among educated and other people who see vodou as always having been denigrated, always having been insulted, the discourse on vodou are either that it’s an illegal practice or it’s a practice of superstition done by the ignorant,” she says. “Meanwhile, so much of the culture is infused with the principles of the form. So, it creates a tension, psychologically — how does one represent the culture, and how does one come to terms with being from this culture which is so saturated with this religion?”
Vodou’s influence is felt just about everywhere in Haiti, from the country’s music and art to the latest locally-designed fashions and accessories on display in uptown boutiques.
As head of the Haitian ethnology office, Josué has demonstrated and lobbied to create the first national holiday to honor vodou. Like it or not, he says, vodou is soaked deep into Haiti’s local and international brand — as an aesthetic, a philosophy and a way of life.
“You can be what you want, but stay a Haitian. Stay a proud Haitian,” Josué says.
Ferreira’s reporting was supported by a grant from the International Reporting Project.
The CONSTRUCTED LANGUAGES (aka CONLANGS) that are used in Game of Thrones’ Dothraki, Avatar’s Na’vi, Star Trek’s Klingon and LOTR’s Elvish are all fictitiously constructed languages used for the purpose of Hollywood. Invented languages can present a bit of a conundrum as they have an extensive vocabulary, grammar rules, and even dialects. The conundrum being…what then constitutes as a real language? The TED talk may help straighten things out a bit.
Teachers can flip this lesson by using: http://ed.ted.com/lessons/are-elvish-klingon-dothraki-and-na-vi-real-languages-john-mcwhorter
The New York Times posted a 25 question survey that asks the participant questions about their DIALECT-the vocabulary/LEXICON that they use to speak various terms and phrases. With the information, the results will give the participant an approximation of their location based solely upon their responses. Of course, if you over think your responses, it could end up placing you in Toronto, aye?
In what appears to be a cultural phenomenon that preaches exactly opposite what the Gangnam Style revolution brought (lavish lifestyle of new money in the South Korean city of Seoul), a COUNTERCULTURE effort is being rapped by young adults in the country of Pakistan. In Pakistan, a DEVELOPING COUNTRY that is finding its footing in a COMMERCIALIZED world, the Mr. Burger fast food chain provides halal burgers to the masses. A typical WESTERN style food chain, Mr. Burger offers meals to those who can afford it, thus the new title that is given to young urban professionals, “Burgers.”
Though the Mr. Burger food chain succeeds in ACCULTURATING the masses into Western tastes, there are some that look to turn their back on the would-be-Burgers by giving “Burgers” a negative connotation. Rapper Talha Anjum from the Young Stunners says,
“A Burger is someone who wants to be someone they aren’t, someone who wears skinny jeans and Nikes, uses a smartphone, and holds a US Green Card. If you listen to Burger-e-Karachi, we’re not making fun of people,” Anjum said. “It’s just a message that you should be real to yourself and real to the people around you. You shouldn’t judge someone if they don’t have a branded T-shirt.”
In this case, the Young Stunners are using POPULAR CULTURE in the form of rap to seemingly NEOLOCALIZE more traditional FOLK CULTURAL ways of life in Pakistan, one that does not emphasize MATERIAL CULTURE. One example of this neolocalization is in the Pakistani version of burger patties that are made from lentils versus more expansive meat products. The countercultural lentil burgers are called “Bun kebabs.” In this case, young adults who might shun and ostracize the YUPPIE CULTURE are trying to let everyone know in their song, The Burgers of Karachi, that being a “bun kebab” is a point of pride for any Pakistani. Ironically, the Young Stunners are using popular culture as BARRIER OF DIFFUSION to help get their message out.
In the meantime, Oppan Gangnam Style!
Watch the Burger-e-Karachi rap video by Young Stunners below.