Finding shotgun houses in New Orleans is easy.
Thousands of these modest structures exist across the city, appearing in any neighborhood developed before 1920. And beyond the city, too, in bayou communities through Louisiana and Mississippi and up into the lower Mississippi River and Ohio River Valleys — even as far away as Louisville, 700 miles north in Kentucky. Narrow and elongated, these linear houses are treasured by visitors and tourists alike in New Orleans today.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine New Orleans today without them. These homes-without-hallways are as much a hallmark of the Crescent City as brass bands or beignets. No single architectural style encompasses the shotgun: They come in Spanish Colonial, Greek Revival and Federalist flavors, with hip or gable roofs. Some feature elaborate gingerbread detailing while others boast imperious classical facades. Shotguns are a way of life in New Orleans, enduring over time as design trends come and go, another inimitable feature of the classic city.
Yet shotguns were for a long time far less popular than they are today. “For decades, even after the rise of the preservation movement in the 1920s, most architects, architectural historians and preservationists tended to ignore shotgun houses, favoring instead antebellum townhouses and older Creole cottages,” says Richard Campanella, author and professor of geography in the Tulane School of Architecture. “Shotgun houses were seen as rote, simple and functional. Incredibly, well into the 1960s, you could get a demolition permit on a shotgun even in the French Quarter.”
Tracing shotgun houses back to their origins isn’t so easy. The first official records of these houses in New Orleans date back to the era of the Louisiana Purchase (1803). So named because you could ostensibly fire birdshot from the front door through the back door without hitting a wall, shotgun houses weren’t actually identified as such until much later, long after their peak in the late 19th century.
Building on an African Architectural Legacy
While some theories hold that local builders designed shotguns in response to narrow urban lot sizes or to beat a real-estate tax on frontage, historians point to a global picture. John Michael Vlach, professor of American studies and anthropology at George Washington University, has said that a turning point in the history of the Atlantic slave trade likely ushered the shotgun house to New Orleans. Vlach traced the traditional long-house format from Yoruba peoples who were enslaved in Africa and transported to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). The massive slave revolt that ended with the Haitian Revolution in 1804 brought many thousands of freed and enslaved Black people to New Orleans — and with them, both demand and know-how.
“The influx of Haitian immigrants made New Orleans a truly black city,” Vlach writes in a 1976 journal article outlining his theory. “The massive increase in the population of New Orleans in 1809 created a severe shortage of housing. Free Blacks were in a position to both buy and build houses of their own choosing. They controlled enough financial resources and physical skills to develop their own architectural environment.”
Scattered administrative records specifically mention the maison basse style of homes found in Saint-Domingue. From New Orleans, the shotgun house followed the same waterways as Creole music, food and culture, spreading in ways that defied historians’ expectations for traditional design. “The house probably radiated out across the countryside rather than climbing the folk–urban continuum that is assumed to exist in folk architecture,” Vlach writes.
Campanella, who has explored the geography of the shotgun house as a columnist for the Times-Picayune, says that these earliest shotguns were built in the French-speaking Faubourg Tremé and Vieux Carré (French Quarter) neighborhoods. Only about a dozen or so very old shotgun homes, dating back to the 1810s and ’20s, still evince the “simple, clean lines” of Creole design at this point.
“By far the most common style of the shotgun-house typology is Victorian Italianate, distinctive for its ornate millwork and its segmented-arch doorways and full-length windows, usually with French doors,” Campanella says. “These were built by the thousands between the 1870s and 1900s.”
Shotgun houses generally come in three basic formats: the oldest single family homes (“single shotguns”); side-by-side duplex homes, often for a homeowner and a renter (“shotgun doubles”); and shotguns with a second-story addition, usually a single room but sometimes an entire floor (“camelback shotguns”). Two-story shotgun doubles exist, although they’re more likely to be described as frame houses or townhouses. “I would say the quintessential New Orleans shotgun house of the public imagination is an 1890s Victorian Italianate double,” Campanella says.
And it’s true what they say: A traditional shotgun is one room wide, and a person with an unimpeded view could see from the front through the back door, although many owners later added hallways. The front door of a shotgun house enters into a living room; the next door opens into a bedroom. The third room might be a den or a second bedroom, followed by the final room, the kitchen. Original shotguns didn’t include bathrooms (they had outhouses), so older homes often feature a bathroom near the kitchen in the form of a lean-to addition. Closets, too, are newer amenities. Homes typically lack basements in low-lying New Orleans; shotguns are built on raised foundations.
The linear layout of New Orleans shotgun homes helped residents to withstand the city’s brutal summers. Arranging all the doors in a single line through the house helped with cooling the home. Shotguns also have high ceilings — as much as 12 feet on occasion — to allow hot air to rise. Transom windows over each door could be opened to allow a breeze without necessarily opening every door of the house. Their layout also helped to make them more affordable.
“Shotgun houses by their very nature are utilitarian. Because they don’t traditionally involve hallways, it was a housing form that was cheaper to build,” says Danielle Del Sol, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, a historic preservation nonprofit. “It was very much to the point.”
Demolition, Adaptation and Survival
By the early 20th century, shotgun homes fell out of favor in New Orleans as families took a shine to more modern conveniences (such as privacy). Campanella notes that one Times-Picayune columnist writing in 1926 dismissed the city’s historic shotguns as “lumber in a pile.” Upwardly mobile middle-class residents preferred the bungalow, and later, the suburban ranch house, especially in newly built, automobile-oriented developments. Attitudes about shotguns began to shift again in the 1970s, when New Orleanians came to see the older homes as markers of the city’s authenticity. Despite years of demolition and neglect, shotguns can still be found in every part of New Orleans today, says Del Sol. They make up about one-in-five homes in Uptown and are also common in working-class neighborhoods in the city’s Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Wards.
But Hurricane Katrina took a huge toll on the city’s stock of shotguns. With federal partners and funds, the city of New Orleans spent years demolishing damaged or vacant properties in the wake of the 2005 storm. Homeowners and occupants often had little say in these teardowns, especially those who fled the city and were living outside New Orleans, according to Karen Gadbois, an artist and journalist who photographed hundreds and hundreds of homes before they were razed. The city granted more than 24,000 demolition permits in the years after Katrina, leading to protests by community organizers against demolitions without consent. Most were shotguns, she says, although other vernacular styles likely suffered worse losses — namely Creole cottages and dogtrot houses, since there were far fewer of these homes to begin with.
“It’s hard to process loss in the built environment when you’re having it at such a broad scale,” Gadbois says. “I thought if I at least photographed the houses, there would at least be documentation of them.”
The Preservation Resource Center, which was founded by the Junior League of New Orleans in 1974, operates tours of shotguns and podcasts about their history today. Del Sol argues that preserving these homes is crucial for maintaining the unique historical fabric of New Orleans, a draw for the nearly 20 million tourists who visited the city in 2019. For residents, these homes are sought after: Renovated shotguns in hot neighborhoods command high prices, and some buyers take shotgun doubles and break down the wall between them for larger homes.
Knockdowns are still common, though, especially in Uptown and other areas desirable for market-rate development. Part of the goal of the tours is to show people how residents continue to change shotguns to fit their needs, through additions and new construction. Adaptation is part of the history of the shotgun, and variations contribute to the texture of the city.
Today, shotgun homes still serve renters and homeowners alike, from the prosperous Garden District to the working-class Fifth Ward, much as they have for more than 200 years. But the reputation of one element of these homes has never fully recovered.
“We have seen new shotguns. Organizations that are building infill on empty lots do have traditional New Orleans layouts and types that they use,” Del Sol says. “But they will, of course, add in some hallways.”