“Shotgun!” In our historic city by the Bay, that exclamation is much more than a claim on the front passenger seat; it’s a proclamation of our love and appreciation for those colorful, narrow-fronted houses that line the streets of our historic districts. Simple in form but complex in character, our shotgun houses are poised for a comeback. But with our realization of the structures’ potential comes questions: What are shotgun houses, where do they come from, when did they appear in Mobile and how do they relate to our community today?
Simply put, this easily recognizable house type is a one-room-wide and several-room-deep dwelling. Exterior and interior doors align, a trait that birthed the structure’s nickname; even the sorriest of shots could take aim, pull the trigger and send a bullet sailing through the front door and out the back door. With a porch and gable roof, these long, lanky lodgings occasionally feature side wings or ells, adding a little more footage for the foundation or fodder. A pretty simple building, don’t you think? Formal definitions only go so far.
Our Southern climate probably contributed to the rise of the shotgun house. The shallowness of massing and alignment of window openings foster the circulation of air, a crucial design in the hot and humid South. But such climatic considerations are just a part of the puzzle — there could be more to the story. Some historians place the origins of the shotgun house in Africa. John Vlach, a noted folklorist and architectural historian, claims that the overall form and spatial sequences animating shotguns were inspired by traditional African dwellings. “The links to Africa are not simple and direct. The story behind the shotgun involves long migrations, the conduit of the Atlantic slave trade, the rise of free black communities, and the development of vernacular and popular traditions in architecture, and the growth of American industrial needs.”
While their origins remain a subject of debate, one thing is certain: Shotguns figure more prominently in the American South than any other landscape. One certainly sees them all over the older sections of town. The Port City’s earliest known surviving shotgun-style home dates from around 1866. Located at 159 South Dearborn Street, the house is a gem. This well-proportioned dwelling features exquisite Greek Revival details, most notably its so-called “Egyptian Door.” The house constitutes a unique stand-alone, for most shotguns occur in rows; in fact, some Mobile blocks, such as those in the Oakleigh neighborhood, shown above, are lined with them.
Two factors made the typology all the more popular. Constructed for speculative and rental purposes after the Civil War, shotguns served as homes for a sizable portion of the South’s working and ethnic populations. Their long, narrow form afforded maximum development potential for a block of land. Furthermore, assemblages of prefabricated, mass-produced materials, such as wall clapboards, window frames, bead molding and other timber products (still so much better than those produced today), made for ease of construction. Some company towns and developments were populated by shotguns alone.
Shotguns continued to be built into the 1920s, although increased home ownership, suburban expansion and lifestyle changes eventually led to their decline in popularity. Recent decades witnessed the demolition of many shotgun houses; however, they still exist in large numbers.
Moving forward, shotguns are remaking our present. A vital element of the inner city renaissance so positively impacting Mobile, shotguns answer many needs. Quite a number have been adaptively reused as law offices, and others function as boutiques. However, it is in the residential realm that they offer the most benefits. A shotgun’s narrow width reduces lawn maintenance, while still providing space for an SUV out front. Snug yet gracious, its individual rooms can either be retained or combined in unique ways to provide for privacy or engagement. Some homeowners, such as Taylor Atchison, even choose to take a contemporary approach to their oblong interiors.
Southern Oakleigh, eastern Old Dauphin and less appreciated portions of Mobile’s historic neighborhoods, such as Texas Hill and The Campground, still feature scores of shotguns. Some too-far-gone examples have even been combined to form urban assemblages of great nuance, being utilized as launch pads for life, workplaces or bases in town. These manageable and malleable buildings always hit the mark.