Shotgun Homes in New Orleans
Shotgun homes are one of the most iconic type buildings of New Orleans. You see a picture of one, and you automatically think of New Orleans, though you can find it in other cities.
The original design of the shotgun home came from Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). Following the Saint-Domingue Revolution (also called the Haitian Slave Revolt) ending in 1804, thousands of free people of color migrated to New Orleans, bringing their customs and style of architecture. The first shotgun homes in Haiti were makeshift, one-room-wide buildings with dirt floors. The rooms lead into each other with no hallways. Plantations often used shotgun homes on plantations.
When giving tours, I find that many people have heard the term shotgun house but do not understand what it is. The story goes that if you fire a shotgun through the front door, it will go all the way through the house cleanly and go out the back door. The term most likely originated from a Dahomey Fon area term “to-gun,” meaning “gathering place” or “house.” To-gun, sounding like a shotgun and in the New Orleans’ style of mispronouncing the word, becomes a “shotgun,” and bullets fly through the house (we like our stories).
Shotguns were designed to let the air flow through the house, cooling the homes down in the hot summers. Homes are about 12 to 16 feet wide, and the rooms are square boxes laying one after another. This works well with the narrow lots in New Orleans. Ceilings are high, 12 to 14 feet. Doors have transoms (windows) over them. Hot air rises, and with a nice river breeze outside, you could open all your transoms pushing the hot air out.
There are homes with misaligned doors inside. The straight-through doorways gained a belief that the houses attracted spirits because they could go straight through a shotgun home. So, some built a door off from the others to ward off spirits.
There are no hallways in a traditional shotgun. So walking through people’s bedrooms… you don’t know what you could stumble upon! With no hallways, privacy is an issue as well. So many people “Americanize” their homes by moving things around and adding hallways.
Traditional shotguns have the kitchen in the back of the home. Bathrooms weren’t placed in the homes in the beginning. You had a privy or outhouse in the backyard. In 1836 the first indoor piping for water became used, but before and during this time, many people in New Orleans had cisterns to bring water into the house. But, since the city had no sewer lines, toilets were still connected to cesspits, and bathtubs might empty under the house.
Many bathrooms in early shotgun homes are add-ons, built into a room or a room added after the kitchen. The later-built shotguns might have bathrooms built-in.
There are different styles of shotguns. You have the basic skinny and deep, single wide shotgun. There is the double-wide shotgun, basically, a duplex where two families could live under one roof. Many of these were built as rental properties. Each side of the double mirrors the other: front doors will be on the edges of the building, and staircases will match. Then there is the camelback shotgun—this where another floor is added to the home. Normally on the back of the building adding more bedrooms to house. Camelbacks come in single and double.
I call shotguns the track homes of the 1800s. In the later 1800’s you get whole developments of shotgun homes, rolls of homes with similar styles. You’ll see either Greek Revival or Queen Anne/Eastlake styles. Thousands were built in the 1880s, and 1890’s all over the city, including in the Irish Channel and the Esplanade Ridge.
As someone that lives in a traditional shotgun home, there are things I love about it: the tall ceilings, the hardwood floors, and the history. I also like that the whole home is opened up, that people living in the house can not lock themselves away. Some would see that as a negative. I wouldn’t recommend having roommates in a shotgun. One thing that drives me crazy is that our bathroom is in the back of the building. Living in a three-bedroom shotgun, if you are in the living room, you have to walk half a block to the bathroom!