Monday, July 30, 2012

Love Shack

A look at the shotgun houses of New Orleans - their use and relevance in an energy challenged era.

A modest shotgun house in New Orleans's Bayou ...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Along the river wards of New Orleans is a style of home called a shotgun house. They're called shotguns because there's line of sight from the front door straight out to the back door. Like the rowhouses of northern cities, such as the trinities of Philadelphia - a sort of vertical complement - these homes were built at a time of economic prosperity for cities, before the automobile, when dense, efficient housing was needed to house workers in manufacturing centers. Predominantly popular from the post Civil War era to the 1920's, the style includes many variations and is often characterized by touches of ornamental woodwork.

Though mostly associated with the working and middle class neighborhoods of Louisiana, the homes have crossed both class and geographic boundaries, and can be found in cities as far north as Louisville. Some shotguns can be large and unusually long and some can be cozy little love shacks, if you will. But most of them attained their narrow, rectangular shape due to the tax assessment being based on the width of the parcel.

On a recent visit to New Orleans I ventured out into the sweltering heat to document these notorious abodes, many of which I had been told were swept away by the scourge of Katrina. I was determined to have a look, despite having the hot humid delta air hang on me like an old thick wool suit.

As I reached an area below Marais Street, not far from the famous Lower 9th, a ward of the city that was said to be the most devastated by the the hurricane, I began to see evidence of the disaster still present.

There's been much written about the curious handling of emergency funds and procurement of real estate in these areas after the hurricane. A 2007 FOIA report unearthed by the Associated Press indicated that $84.5 million was dispensed to more than 10,000 affected households, which was 2000 more households than existed at the time.

River wards still recovering.
More recently, a report in the Huffington Post chronicled the many ongoing problems and controversies associated with the recovery effort, which is now in its 7th year since the storm ravaged the area. According to the report, "more than 3,000 lots flooded by Hurricane Katrina and bought with federal money in an emergency bailout, sit idle across this city – a multimillion-dollar drain on federal, state and city coffers that lends itself to no easy solution."

Underscoring the dilemma, the article told how a musician living in the area, Jim Provensal, said he wanted to buy a dilapidated house, but the city agency in charge of selling or developing the properties wanted $130,000.

"That's too much money!" Provensal said to the reporter. "They don't care. They know if they sell the property they won't have a job."

And so, the house remains a vacant board-up with paint peeling.

In the Lower 9th Ward, 739 homeowners sold to the state. Approximately 570 of those properties remain unsold. In some areas, entire blocks sit undeveloped.

Shotgun floor plan.
But selling the properties below value isn't necessarily the answer. The report quotes a woman from the Center for Community Progress who makes the point that when a city sells cheaply they end up "just putting properties in the hands of investors who drive the properties' values down." Buyers often sit on vacant properties hoping for the market to rebound, and when that doesn't happen the properties end up back in the hands of a city, she said, per the report.

Yet in the areas I reached, some level of activity was apparent. Trucks of clandestine security personnel patrolled the area. I spoke to one man whose sign on his pick-up read in plain letters "on call security". I asked, "Do you know the owners of these abandoned homes?" He said he didn't. I asked if he knew much about the area or what it was called. He said, "I don't know anything about this place or this city. I've only been here 2 days, I was dispatched from up north." The conversation was oddly ambiguous, leaving me to speculate if some private army had been loosed upon the region by developers to maintain control while deals were being worked out.

A bit further down the river in the lower 9th, the potential for any sort of comeback seems much more challenging, despite the recent efforts of Brad Pitt's Make it Right Foundation to build simple, affordable, ecologically sustainable structures in the area. The ward is cut off from the rest of the city by a canal, and it suffered blight problems even before the hurricane hit. Very few businesses seem willing to risk the type of investment needed to turn things around.

Modest New Orleans shotgun house.
Vintage, with shutters.

Back to our essential focus - the shotgun houses of New Orleans. After a long journey through various neighborhoods, I came upon a stretch of rectangular wood structures that seemed likely to be the intent of my quest. I asked a few men who were sitting in the shade nearby if these were indeed the notorious shotgun houses. They confirmed my assessment, showing how the front doors gave one a straight view to the back, and that along the sides were a series of windows. The first one we examined was called a double barrel shotgun, because entry doors existed on both sides.

This general order of layout was not a random occurrence. The rooms of shotgun houses are well-sized, and have relatively high ceilings for cooling purposes, as when warm air can rise higher, the lower part of a room tends to be cooler. Each room precedes another, and the lack of hallways allows for efficient cross-ventilation in every room. A variation of this was to have the rooms off to the side, as in a train car. Another variation, called a "camelback", included a small addition to the top of the house.

Restored with subtle paint scheme.
Restored, double barrel style.

I could see the efficiency, the carefully designed alignment, allowing for a well thought out density, but with considerations of comfort and privacy.

These factors are worthy of observation. As cities become increasingly more relevant in our energy challenged future, it's no irony that the extremely dense urban weave that characterized the 19th century is potentially a solution for the 21st century. The age of sprawl has seemingly stopped. Gas guzzling SUV's and McMansions have lost their place in this era. We seek affordability, efficiency, and access to public transportation. There is much to be noted in analyzing the efficient homes of the past, such as the shotgun houses - their dimensions and construction, the sense of community their close-knit neighborhoods brought about. Through a careful study of our past we may find solutions for a better future.

At the end of the day, a hot New Orleans day, and despite the reminders of the destruction that the hurricane left, I found a positive note in exploring and discovering the resourceful aspects of our nation's great legacy of design history.--D.A. DeMers.

Still ahead at Designer in Exile: A compelling chat with acclaimed Dutch painting duo "Haas and Hahn" as they near completion of their North Philly project for Mural Arts.

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  1. Nice article, but I'm amazed they're still planning to build anything there. It's just going to get swept away again.

  2. I love how you tie human interest elements into architecture features. Informative post.

  3. Whoa, this story seems to wander as wildly as the twists of the Mississippi. A little focus, please. These houses were mostly cheap wooden shacks for the poorest of the poor, or as second homes for people with a little more money to get away to. I hardly see them as models of study for future generations.