I lived in Savannah, Ga., for nearly four years. It was a crazy time for me personally, but one that influenced me in ways I am just now realizing. As a downtown resident, I was privy to some of the nation’s most incredible architecture on a daily basis. From the mansions surrounding Forsyth Park to the cotton mills of River Street, each home had a personality and told a story. Perhaps, though, no story was as compelling to me as the small, modest homes tucked into long-forgotten lots. With as few as three rooms and as many as six, these shotgun houses told the story of the real Reconstruction as it was for most every Tom, Dick, and Harry living and working in the South.
The shotgun house is a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than 12 feet wide (roughly the same width as what we now call park models), with doors at each end. It was the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the American Civil War (1861–65), through to the 1920s. They were also referred to as shotgun shacks, shotgun huts, and shotgun cottages. A railroad apartment is somewhat similar, but has a side hallway from which rooms are entered (by analogy to compartments in passenger rail cars).
A number of architectural historians claim the style can be traced from African and Haitian influences on house design in New Orleans, but the houses can be found as far away as Chicago, Key West, and California. Shotgun houses still dot the Southern landscape in towns such as my own; Pink Hill, N.C. Though initially as popular with the middle class as with the poor, the shotgun house became a symbol of poverty in the mid-20th century.
Shotgun houses consist of three to five rooms in a row with no hallways. Like a tiny house, the focal point of the home is the “living room” followed by the kitchen. The bedroom designed of necessity, not luxury. The kitchen is also located at the rear of the home for ventilation and egress, if necessary.
OF INTEREST: The term “shotgun house”, which was in use by 1903 but became more common after about 1940, is often said to come from the saying that one could fire a shotgun through the front door and the pellets would fly cleanly through the house and out the back door (since all the doors are on the same side of the house).
What is most interesting to me though is not how similar in design tiny houses and shotgun houses are, but the sociological similarities.
Shotgun houses were most popular before widespread ownership of the automobile allowed people to live farther from businesses and other destinations. What I have noticed is that a number of tiny house enthusiasts are looking to minimize their carbon footprint and are again going back to the day when cars are used for long hauls, and not for twice-a-day commutes.
Building lots were kept small out of necessity, 30 feet wide at most (much like the backyards such tiny housers as Dee Williams live in). An influx of people to cities, both from rural areas in America and from foreign countries, all looking to fill emerging manufacturing jobs, created the high demand for housing in cities. So shotgun houses sprung up to offer inexpensive, quickly built, homes, much the same way rowhouses and tenement homes were built in the Northeast.
Another interesting parallel is in taxation. It is no secret that a number of tiny house enthusiasts share the idea that the government has become too large and that taxation is, by in large, not by representation any longer. Many reverted to shotgun houses, which utilized a minimal lot, simply because the New Orleans housing taxation structure was based on lot frontage and habitable rooms. Less lot, less tax. Less rooms, less tax. Consequently, shotgun house design does not contain closets or hallways, which were counted as rooms. Seen a tiny house with a coat closet or a long hallway lately? No. It has emerged as a useless and avoidable space within the American home.
If you have noticed elements of the shotgun style have recently been seen in a number of the compact, low occupancy structures employed in the Solar Decathlon contests held in Washington, D.C., periodically. While some are erected from Structural Insulated Panels brought to the site, many shotguns consist of enclosed single or multiple units designed specifically for road transports, with multiple modules connected on site. Wait, is that a Tiny House then?