A Brief History of New Orleans’ Iconic “Shotgun” Houses
During the early weeks of 2020—before sheltering in place began—I visited New Orleans for the first time. After years of longing to experience The Big Easy, I found myself sauntering (okay, stumbling) to the tune of brass bands and bounce music down Bourbon Street, passing a refreshing Hurricane between my friends, beneath the twinkling of Mardi Gras beads dangling from balconies overhead.
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Friends, it took me all of five minutes to become obsessed with this town, and I’d give anything to be there now, knee-deep in a Sazerac. I’ll never forget my first glimpses of the NOLA neighborhoods, with their rows and rows of shotgun houses—those iconic, colorful homes customary throughout the south, and especially in New Orleans. Now, stuck in my apartment, I’ve found myself daydreaming about those gorgeous homes and took a deep dive into the history of the shotgun house in beautiful, vibrant, and determined New Orleans.
To appreciate the history of the shotgun house, you need a basic understanding (or at least, a super condensed version) of the history of New Orleans. Indigenous peoples inhabited the land that would become New Orleans when, in the early 1700s, French colonists arrived. The French founded the city in 1718 and later lost control of the area to the Spanish, only to have the area returned to the French at the turn of the 19th century. Colonists forced enslaved West Africans into the region as well, and later the Haitian Revolution resulted in black and white refugees settling in the area. By the 1830s, an influx of Irish and German immigrants arrived. If you’re asking yourself, “Sarah, are you describing a dystopian version of EPCOT’s World Showcase Pavilion? What does this have to do with houses?” the answer is Everything, and please bear with me.
Following the population boom of the early 1800s, housing demand increased, thus spurring the construction of shotgun houses. Structures of this type originated in West Africa, were then introduced to Haiti, and eventually made their way to New Orleans through Haitian and West African refugees, immigrants, and slaves. Initially, the structures served poorer populations. Often, the homes were built by nearby factories to house workers who rented the dwellings. By the late 1900s, shotguns were looked down upon by the city’s middle and upper class residents; yet the sheer prevalence of shotguns in NOLA ensured they remained occupied. More recently, Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the city’s 9th ward in 2005, which was composed primarily of shotgun homes. Despite the unimaginable destruction the neighborhood suffered, shotgun homes are still prevalent throughout the city.
There is much debate about the origins of the name shotgun house, and almost all of those debates stem from the structure’s design. Shotgun homes are characteristically long, narrow dwellings that are a single room wide and a few rooms deep. Popular folklore says that the homes’ design allows a shotgun to fire a bullet through the open front door, straight through each room and out the back door unscathed. More likely, the name is derived from the West African Yoruba word togun, which translates to “house.”
The oldest shotgun houses lack hallways, requiring inhabitants to walk through each room to traverse the home from front to back. The windows and doors at either end, combined with high ceilings, allow for efficient ventilation and airflow in such a hot and humid climate. A shotgun house’s foundation is raised off the ground, which allows for airflow below the home and discourages termites and other pests from setting up shop. The home’s foundation also protects against flooding and suits the softer earth below.
With such narrow floor plans and lots, shotgun homes were constructed closely together. Seeking relief from the city’s humid subtropical climate, their inhabitants gathered outside onto their porches, helping to foster New Orleans’ culture of congeniality.
While earlier shotguns lacked proper bathrooms, modern shotguns position bathrooms toward the back of the house, near the kitchen. Other variations of the shotgun have proliferated, including “double barrel” shotguns (two units with a shared center wall) and “camelbacks” (which boast a second story toward the back of the structure). But the most striking features of shotgun houses are their vibrant colors and diverse styles. Toward the late 1800s, shotguns became more decorative—most likely to diversify the housing market offerings—with gabled roofs, porches, and other stylistic flair inspired by French and Spanish architecture and everywhere in between.
“People here love our history and traditions and things that make us different, and in a lot of the areas where the shotguns are really prevalent, you can’t repaint the bright colors,” says New Orleans born-and-raised real estate agent Stacie Carubba. “There are certain historic colors that are protected and it is a big deal.”
If the humble history of the shotgun is inspiring you to pack your bags and head south, you’re not alone. New Orleans has long been a tourist destination, and the city’s vibe is appealing to transplants as well.
“I do find people that are moving down here from up north—especially millennials—are drawn to shotgun houses because that’s part of our history.” says New Orleans-based realtor Romula Rhodes.
The lasting appeal of the city’s shotguns bridges the divide between generations. “It’s a little bit of old world, a little bit of new world,” says Rhodes.
Carubba agrees, saying “[Shotguns] are indicative of our culture with the fact that all the rooms are connected and there’s not necessarily a lot of privacy. It’s sort of how New Orleans is in general, just being an open, loving city, and everybody’s family, everybody’s all up in everybody’s business. It’s a true representation of the city.”
While shotgun houses can be found throughout the American South, the dwellings are a unique part of New Orleans’ heritage. The next time you find yourself in the Big Easy (and I’m hoping that’s sooner than later!) keep in mind the shotgun houses’ deep cultural roots, the generations of families—both enslaved and free—who called them home, and the mighty New Orleanians who celebrate their resilience.