Friday, November 25, 2016

The St. Louis Shotgun

You've heard of the American foursquare and the flounder that are quite prevalent throughout St. Louis. But sometimes when I'm tooling around the city I'll run across a long, narrow rectangular home, some of which are colloquially referred to as "shotguns".

Here's a classic example from New Orleans, Louisiana:

Photo credit: PorterBriggs.com, the Voice of the South

I like this term and wanted to share some thoughts on how it first came to me and what it means and how three particular songs creep into my head each time I come across a classic example of a shotgun house:

"I said shotgun, shoot 'em 'fore he run now..."
"Shotgun": Junior Walker

"And you may find yourself in a shotgun shack..."
"Once In A Lifetime": Talking Heads 

"Well you're crazy mama with your ball and chain and your sawn off shotgun blown out brains..."
"Crazy Mama": The Rolling Stones

These are the songs that flood my brain when I see the many shotgun homes in St. Louis. They are interspersed all over town, north to south from Walnut Park West to the Patch. Though you kind of have to train your eye toward them, as most of them are rather nondescript.

I first heard the term from my girlfriend (now wife) when she first moved to St. Louis from Fairview Heights, Illinois. She rented a "shotgun apartment" in South City. It was the first time I'd heard it, but I loved the way it sounded.  So American! A house like a gun! I thought she was so cool for renting "a shotgun apartment in South City". She was hipped to the term from the landlord that showed her the property.

It's just another small piece of the story on how we fell for St. Louis, a mystery around every corner.

A shotgun is defined as a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than ~12 feet wide, with rooms arranged one behind the other and doors at each end of the house.
                        Photo credit: PorterBriggs.com, the Voice of the South


The thing that was curious about her apartment building is that it was a four family with two units at ground level and two units above. Therefore it was really more of a side-by-side shotgun, a double-barreled shotgun!

Actually, some might call it a "camelback" shotgun which is defined as a shotgun floor plan that includes a second floor at the rear of the house or directly atop the ground level floor (source). Probably not, but there are variations on the classic shotgun shack.

Either way, it was a shotgun floor plan, and in my many years traversing around St. Louis, I've come to love these homes even though most of the local examples do not have the ornate Victorian embellishments on the front porches like the ones in the deep South.

A recent trip to Memphis, Tennessee sealed my fondness for the style when I found out Aretha Franklin (among other blues/soul greats) was born in a shotgun shack...cementing my fascination and curiosity with these homes...entangling the home style with some of the most influential American music ever created.
Aretha Franklin's Memphis home through age 2: photo credit: Memphis Flyer

So it seemed like a worthy use of my Thanksgiving morning before the turkey goes in the over and the house is full of family to investigate where this term came from and give it some St. Louis context.

The earliest known use of "shotgun house" as a name for these dwellings appeared in a classified ad in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on August 30, 1903. (source)

There are three main accounts on the story behind the term "shotgun":

The first is all about the floor plan where the rooms are all lined up in a row with no hallways, usually in the following order: living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. It was an efficient use of space when cities were crowded and densely built and narrow and long lots were simply more affordable.

The second story is the most entertaining. It claims that if you opened the doors from front to back, you could shoot a shotgun clean through the house. This theory, likely more folklore than anything, was popularized by a prominent architect and preservationist in New Orleans, Louisiana named Samuel Wilson Jr.  He also suggested that shotgun-style houses originated in the Creole suburbs of New Orleans in the early 1800s.

Thirdly, it is a design element for hot weather environments, where if you open the front and back doors, a shotgun breeze will flow through all rooms of the house cooling it.

Most historians seem to agree with Samuel Wilson Jr. that the shotgun originated in the Southern U.S., mainly New Orleans with ties to West Africa and Haiti.

Shotgun architecture is now widely recognized as an African American contribution to American architectural styles.

Evidence suggests that this name is actually a corruption of the word “shogon.” In West Africa, “shogon” means “God’s House.”

John Michael Vlach, Professor of American Studies and Anthropology at The George Washington University in D.C. and director of the university's Folklife Program research backs up the origins of this architectural style came to New Orleans from West Africa via Haiti. 
In Haiti, enslaved Africans took the architectural form common to their homeland and using local materials built narrow buildings with gabled entrances, stucco walls, thatched roofs, and shuttered windows so they could enjoy the only privacy allowed to them. They also wrote African motifs into the exterior framing of their homes. 
When Africans in Haiti revolted in 1791, many European plantation owners fled to New Orleans, taking with them enslaved Africans still under their control. Many other free people of color migrated to New Orleans as well. This had a profound effect on the demographics of New Orleans. In 1810, the population of New Orleans was approximately 1/3 white, 1/3 enslaved Africans, and 1/3 free people of color, most of who had come from Haiti. 
In New Orleans, free people of color continued to build shotgun houses, replacing their African motifs with gingerbread trimmings. And the porch on the front of these houses was quite distinct from French homes whose outdoor areas were actually interior courtyards. The front porch on shotgun houses supported interconnectedness between people and gave neighbors a strong sense of community. 
John H. Lienhard, Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston decided they must be a regional invention from the Louisiana bayou country. That's where the older ones seemed to be concentrated. He traces the shotgun house to the early 1800s. Then he finds older shotgun houses in the sugar-growing plantation islands -- in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Finally, he finds that same distinctive design in West Africa. (source)
The folklore of the shotgun being fired through the front door and exiting through the back has been somewhat debunked by at least one researcher. 
The explanation is a quaint one, and would likely have made sense for the Haitian homes upon which the American shotgun house design is based. Once the homes were erected in the U.S., however, doors were usually placed off center, so that a person conducting such an experiment would've probably taken a sizable chunk out of the rear wall of the front room. (Another etymological explanation is that the shotgun house takes its name from that aforementioned West African style of home. (source)
Another interesting note is that some historians claim the shotgun holds another American first:
The shotgun house brought a new home design concept to the United States: the porch. The overhanging roof along the front of the house created a stoop where a family could congregate on a hot evening. The front of a traditional shotgun house would usually encroach upon the sidewalk, and the house's porch gave rise to the longstanding New Orleans custom of visiting outside with neighbors in the evening (source).
As I was reading up this topic and Southern black culture, I couldn't help but think that our culture in St. Louis is exactly what is described in the South, or at least borrowed in some way. I currently live in a majority African American neighborhood and it became apparent pretty quickly that many black people in St. Louis are front porch sitters, this is where the visiting and socializing occurs. White people are more likely to take it to the back yard where fire pits, chairs, etc are set up. Many blacks that ended up in St. Louis came from the South looking for factory jobs, so maybe the many shotguns in the city and the front porch sits have New Orleans, or at least Southern roots. 

However, the shotgun is not exclusive to black families/culture, it eventually spread out of the South to all parts of the U.S.
The influence of the shotgun house would soon extend beyond the African-American community. By the beginning of the 20th century, shotgun house building kits were available on the market for $100. The structures soon began to appear in cities across the United States. Because of their simple design, shotgun houses could be erected quickly, which soon made them a common sight in the boom towns of the West.

But the very nature and design of these homes helped to strengthen the African-American community in the U.S. Because of their close proximity and porches, shotgun houses helped give rise to tight-knit neighborhoods. The shotgun house -- modest, constructed close to other homes, imported from the Caribbean and Africa -- has become somewhat emblematic of the African-American experience. Writes historian Denise Andrews: "The shotgun house represents the slaves' reaction to adversity, making sense of their new environment by modifying familiar living patterns. Cultural contact did not necessitate massive change in architecture; but rather an intelligent modification of culture" (source).
There are both wood-sided and brick shotguns all over St. Louis. I haven't found one with the ornate Victorian porch design, but I'm on the hunt.
Per the St. Louis Cultural Resources Office:
The shotgun house is often found in older St. Louis neighborhoods. Shotgun houses appear in frame with a front-facing gable, or in brick, with a hipped roof. Examples from this period can be found in Carondelet, Hyde Park and Old North St. Louis neighborhoods. 
The shotgun house at 8225 Vulcan, in Carondelet, is built of brick on a rubble stone foundation. Constructed about 1860, it is three rooms deep and has a low hipped roof, and simple corbelled cornice. From a low porch, the front door opens directly into the house's front room. The porch is a modern addition, but the remainder of the house is in close to original condition. (source)
But, shotguns are all over the city, not just the oldest parts. Look no further than Tower Grove South where my favorites are located right in a row on Morgan Ford Road just north of Stella Blues.
Here are some examples in the deep south of St. Louis near Carondelet and the Patch, including the one on Vulcan Street mentioned above on the city website.
 8225 Vulcan Street
But they are located all over, north to south. St. Louis has shotguns in spades. Enjoy them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very cool! I love knowing more about where this architectural style comes from--for me, the shotgun houses are so St. Louis--nice to know their origin and that they may go back to shoguns of W. Africa. My bet is on the doors lining up with each other being a way to cool the place off!