Southern standard - A loving defense of the shotgun house
I didn’t know quite what to expect.
The information, which had arrived via a third party, was thin and inexact, although essentials were there. The kitchen was perhaps on the small side. So long as you’re consumers of fresh goods, she’d said, the smaller fridge won’t be bothersome. A coffee shop was across the street, and although the house sat on the thoroughfare that delivers car commuters from downtown back east during evening rush hour, the neighbors were nice enough, maybe a few were a little rough, but overall people got along and were responsive.
Amid all that, I fixated on the incredible rent. Four-hundred-and-fifty dollars a month, a full $200 less than the apartment my girlfriend and I had been splitting just off Bardstown Road, in a grit-polished sort of bohemian district. We would sacrifice a few high-quality restaurants, a liquor store, a record shop, two coffee shops, a handful of bars, a gas station — but it also meant roughly one story a month less for me, a struggling freelance writer, and maybe one more night a week off for her, the college student trying to keep her loans under control.
It would be our first house together, a shotgun in Germantown with an undersized fridge, a bathroom with cheap industrial carpet and sports-car-red walls, and a covered, airy concrete rectangle of a patio out back. The grand total was three consecutive rooms linked by doorways that lined up precisely, with the option of a front and side entrance. We gawked at the place when we pulled the car to the curb in front of it — the three oppressive awnings were unusual, with bizarre black-and-white variations that set the eye askew. But the house was freshly painted with a coat of modern gray, and despite the awnings, the black-slab front door and windows looked to be in fine shape. It struck a stark contrast with its home row of similar houses, styled with the overgrown grass and general back-alley ambience of an underfed urban neighborhood.
Naturally, we loved it. We were able to fulfill some primal fantasy about living effectively by our means, the place was comfortable enough and the landlords were pleasant people who seemed pleased to have made our acquaintance. They encouraged us to paint the unsightly turquoise walls in what became our “master bedroom,” and they eventually bought us out of the washer/dryer we had purchased and set up near the back door, sharing the eat-in kitchen/entryway/bathroom area, which incidentally included a fireplace — not working, of course, but the mantle turned out to be a fine storage facility for laundry goods.
I proposed to my girlfriend in that galley kitchen, squeezing in with her between the stove and the back wall, and she said yes, and so I will never, ever lose the precise memories I have of that shotgun house. It was cramped and annoying, mostly because the only closet turned out to be in the room we used as a general gathering area. But it was also extraordinarily practical and predictable: cheap rent, cozy with good airflow, built like a bunker. It was warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and neither one cost us too much coin. Getting away from each other on the grounds was a hopeless proposition. Getting away from that house was harder than I imagined.
Among the thousands of shotguns in Louisville, I chose to profile three for this story, two of which actually appear here. This is ostensibly a defense of the shotgun house, although I’m not sure that concept is in need of protection: Once popular for their pure economy, shotguns seem to be experiencing a resurgence here. This is in part a fad driven by lust for the doggedly nostalgic. But there is also something more legitimate, something having to do with the idea that shotguns are perhaps the cheapest, easiest way to buy into the extraordinary history of the River City and its buildings. Most shotguns are so old the plumbing and electric, once installed for the first time during wars whose survivors are barely still around, have already been cycled through and replaced at least once, maybe more. I saw one sinkhole last week, divided by the property line shared by two shotguns; it was the former location of the outhouse, which once had an entrance for each house. One of the most charming original features of the shotgun, of course, was its lack of indoor plumbing.
I chose three shotguns in various parts of the general area known as Germantown, now more a reference point to describe a number of loosely-affiliated neighborhoods, and one of the city’s genuinely weird places. It is undergoing a radical shift of DNA that has brought together a number of unlikely neighbors. Along with the Portland neighborhood, Germantown and its enclaves have the biggest abundance of shotguns in the city. And their variations are extreme: the “classic,” which is basically three consecutive, same-size rooms; the camelback, with a second floor tacked onto the back of the house; the “double-barrel” or “doublewide,” which has at least a hallway, if not whole other rooms, along its length; and the Louisvillian, a style that’s widely known as our own, characterized by a second rear entrance that juts out about five feet from the house, the result of a kitchen or back room added on later, to accommodate our growing appetite for expansion, if only microcosmically.
As mythologies go, the stock about shotgun houses is diverse. They are called shotguns because, one yarn says, you could fire a shotgun from the front stoop and the bullet would travel through the house and out the back door unencumbered. A competing theory, according to research conducted by the National Park Service, is that the name was actually “togun,” a Yoruba word that means “place of assembly,” and that this house type arrived in America via Haitian immigrants who came to Louisiana after the Haitian Revolution. From there, it made its way upriver to places like Louisville and St. Louis.
Shotguns were once known as “mechanic’s cottages,” according to University of Louisville archivist and city historian Tom Owen. Mechanic was a 19th century term for blue-collar worker or laborer, and many shotguns date back at least to the early 1900s. The houses were practical, affordable and easy to maintain.
“You don’t see them very much in cities where slavery didn’t exist, and so there is the claim that they were based on a communal structure of a design that came from West African villages, and so you see them in Biloxi and New Orleans, and coming up the river,” Owen said.
There is an odd sort of reluctance in assessing the chronicle of shotguns, perhaps because the mythology is rich and the history so very pedestrian. For instance, there is a theory that shotguns were built narrow and long (a typical plot is 20-by-180 feet) because the tax code assessed property based on width. A variation of this idea also applies to the camelback: Property owners were taxed on the height of the front of the house; thus, the more economical second floor on the back.
It is also said, quite often in fact, that Louisville has the largest population of shotguns and camelbacks in America. It’s a fancy notion, given the overwhelming popularity of the style and its variants throughout so many of the city’s historic neighborhoods. While New Orleans and St. Louis easily rival Louisville in shotgun inventory, our northern neighbors in New Albany, Ind., also have an abundance of shotguns, many of which have been modernized.
Such mythologies are ultimately untraceable, Owen said.
“To prove that would take being able to find — and I’m not saying it’s impossible to find, but no one I know has spent the necessary 500 hours to magically find a tax code and see it written down in the tax code that the property tax was based on the width of the lot and not the total square footage,” he said.
The legacy of the shotgun secure in our city’s character, it is now in the midst of a revival. According to Debra Richards, a historic preservation specialist with Metro government, a study done by the group Preservation Alliance in the 1980s found that a full 15 percent of Louisville’s housing stock was shotguns. They were practical, an easy, affordable way to get a lot of people into a little space. They’ve endured for the same reasons. “They’re very forgiving houses,” she said. “They are very straightforward. They can be renovated easily.
“I think people lived economically (when shotgun construction boomed),” she said. “I don’t think we do, as a culture. And I don’t think people wasted a lot of stuff.”
A century ago, Louisville was abuzz with artisans and craftspeople; in other words, skilled laborers were the people living in shotguns, and so you often found ornate fronts on otherwise workaday homes.
“It’s an economy of lifestyle, and yet you’re able to have an artistic expression of yourself at all levels of incomes, and I think that’s the beauty of them in some ways.”
“On the Google satellite of life, I haven’t made it very far,” Elaine Laurenz told me, giggling like a little girl in the entryway of her three-room shotgun in Germantown. Laurenz is a portrait artist, and we were standing in her thickly-carpeted front room, which is part-gallery, part-lounge, part-library: In one corner, nailed to the plaster walls and stretching to the ceiling, are wooden shelves, home to a professional collection of National Geographic magazines and LPs.
Each room is 17-by-17 feet, and the ceilings are 12 feet high — well, 11-foot-9 with the new floors, she joked. The high ceilings are a particular luxury, allowing for a gallery-style display of her paintings. The back room, which is also the kitchen and laundry room, and home to the renovated bathroom, is her “boiler room,” essentially a converted studio. Her easel sits near the doorway so that when she works, she can also play fetch with the dog. The game: If Laurenz hits the front door first, she wins. If her black lab gets the toy before that, point to dog.
Laurenz, for the last 18 years the rectory keeper at the Church of the Holy Spirit, grew up in this house, which was built in 1888. She showed me photos of her playing in a kiddie pool in the backyard during the summer of 1961. Her family left that year for the county, but Laurenz’s mother kept the house, renting it out until 1980, when Laurenz was finally ready to move back. With the aid of a city loan-forgiveness program, she bought the house from her mother in 1985, gutted the place, and replaced pretty much everything but the woodwork, which — like many of these houses — remains rich and ornate, the handiwork of her grandfather.
“These houses, technically, they work,” she said. “They’re cool in the summer and warm in the winter, provided the walls are standing. They’re just so easy.
“Everybody’s always saying, ‘You need to downsize, less worries.’ Then you do it, and they say, ‘Can’t you do better?’” she said.
If Laurenz represents the old guard of Germantown and its surrounding burgs, then Trevor Brock is the new. The 28-year-old transplant from Cincinnati bought his Charles Street shotgun three years ago, and started by redoing all of the electrical work, tearing out the carpet stained with cat piss and repainting every surface. He palm-sanded each board of the original oak floors, replaced the back portion of the roof and installed drywall ceilings. He paid $75,000 for the house in 2005; now, most houses on the block are going for more than $100,000.
“I knew right away I wanted to get a shotgun house,” he said.
An industrial electrician, Brock wanted a project for his first house. He said shotguns are easy to update and improve, which is part of the attraction. He’s since added new closets, recessed lighting and a nook for a washer and dryer. Still, the house — which feels remarkably large for its traditional floor plan — is a work in progress.
For all the cultural cachet of the imitable shotgun, then, Brock’s endorsement should serve as both confirmation to weekend warriors and fair warning to the less-than-serious: “Buy a shotgun house. It’ll give you something to do.”
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