When most people think of the study of historic architecture, they may first think of architectural styles – the embellishments or ornamentation added to a house, like a Greek Revival portico or Queen Anne spindles. Sometimes, however, the form (the shape) or plan (the layout) of a house is much more interesting and significant. One type of house defined by its plan that most people have heard of is the shotgun house.
Shotguns are best described as a house rectangular in plan, one-story high, one-room wide, and three to four rooms deep. * Shotguns could be constructed of brick, stone or frame. The rooms of the shotgun, often around 12 to 15 feet wide, line up, one after another. The typical shotgun does not contain any passages or hallways. Most shotguns will have a porch on the façade and usually a rear porch as well (some also have side porches). In warmer climates, the porch serves as another room, and offers a transition between the street and the interior of the home.
Urban parcels, usually subdivided in such a way as to maximize the number of lots and profits, tend to dictate the type of structure constructed. The narrow and often deep lots found in many cities across the United States proved ideal for the footprint of the shotgun house. Theories abound about the origin of the shotgun plan; the form likely originated in West Africa and Haiti, and spread throughout the United States via New Orleans. Shotguns, found both in urban neighborhoods and rural areas, have a long history that “extends back at least to the sixteenth century.”
Most people have heard that shotgun house was designed so that you could shoot a gun straight through without hitting any walls. While that may not be the real impetus behind the development of the plan, it does make a good story! I’ve studied many shotguns in Louisville, Kentucky, where they are estimated to make up 10% of the residential housing stock .
Preservation Louisville, the city’s non-profit historic preservation organization, created an innovative program “Preservation S.O.S” (Save our Shotguns) to educate the community “about Louisville’s large inventory of historic shotgun houses and what role they played in Louisville’s history. Preservation S.O.S is a program that involves shotgun-style home preservation projects that highlight and promote restoration of the existing housing stock of shotgun homes in Louisville.”
After the disaster wrought upon New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, Louisville now has the largest collection of shotguns in the United States. The form is not without controversy, however. Given its prevalence in urban neighborhoods, some people associate the house type with poverty and insubstantial construction. While it may have been easy, and therefore economically feasible, to build shotguns, I don’t think that is necessarily negative. Any house, no matter the plan, will suffer when left unmaintained. The popularity of the shotgun coincides with a rise in building in urban areas, and to the simplicity of the form, and since we aren’t making any more land – the shotguns in our cities are valuable, affordable housing that deserve preservation, rehabilitation, and – dare I say – respect?
*The camelback shotgun is one variation on the shotgun type; the rear room (usually the kitchen) has a second story added above. The camelback is not always a full two stories; one-and-one-half story examples are also common. The double shotgun is a single structure with one roof, and living spaces in the shotgun form on either side of a common wall.
 John Michael Vlach “The Shotgun House: An African Architectural Legacy” in Common Places Readings in American Vernacular Architecture. University of Georgia Press1986.
 Ibid, 59.
 Joanne Weeter. “Shotgun Cottages,” in The Encyclopedia of Louisville, ed. John Kleber (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 819.