Shotgun houses

Shotgun houses

Shotgun houses were long, narrow one-story dwellings, with rooms lined up one behind the other inside. A porch and gable roof face the street. At one time, Charlotte had hundreds of Shotgun houses to shelter many of its residents. Until urban renewal got underway in the 1960s, rows of Shotgun houses lined Independence Boulevard as it wound its way through the south end of the center city.

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On hot summer afternoons, many residents sat on their front porches and chatted with their neighbors, whose homes were often just a few feet away, and often raised a friendly hand as motorists rode past, just a few yards from where they sat.

These narrow houses with their overhanging front gables were one room wide, found in modest, usually black, neighborhoods such as Brooklyn, Dulstown, First Ward and Third Ward. Most were low- and moderate-income units rented by the week from absentee landlords. A handful were also found in white working-class neighborhoods, including those along Belmont Avenue in Belmont-Villa Heights or on Thirty-fourth Street in the North Charlotte mill village.

 In the Urban Renewal era of the 1960s and 1970s, destruction of Charlotte's Shotgun housing was seen as a proud goal. Today, fewer than three dozen are left scattered throughout the city.

Narrow houses, crowded neighborhoods

Built from around 1880 until 1930, these low- and moderate-income units were clustered in large numbers at minimum cost, usually to benefit absentee landlords.

"A developer would buy 10 or 15 acres and build on a grid pattern," said Charlotte architect Jack Boyte. "The access roads would be spaced 200 to 300 feet apart and the land separated into lots, 20 or 30 feet wide and 100 feet deep. The Shotgun houses were often built so close together, if you stuck your arm out the window, you could shake hands with your next-door neighbor.

"The houses, perched on brick piers, were always made of wood. The rooms were lined up front-to-back, with no central hall, so the residents had little privacy. They had to walk through each room to arrive at the last. The houses were heated with fireplaces and had no indoor plumbing. Residents used wells and outhouses for cooking, bathing and other personal needs."

Supposedly, the name "Shotgun" comes from the notion that you could fire a gun through the front door and the bullet would go out the back door without hitting a single wall. In reality, this is seldom true, for interior doors do not usually line up. Others theorize that the Shotgun resulted from turning a simple housing design sideways to fit on a narrow lot, thereby squeezing in a lot of houses on very little land. But these same housing forms have been found in rural areas, used by tenant farmers.

Front Porches On hot summer afternoons, many residents sat on their front porches and chatted with their neighbors,

On hot summer afternoons, many residents sat on their front porches and chatted with their neighbors, whose homes were often just a few feet away, and often raised a friendly hand as motorists rode past, just a few yards from where they sat.  "White was the only color landlords used to paint Shotgun houses, until residents began to buy them," said Jack Boyte. "When they were later bought by residents, you'd see some interesting colors. One resident might paint his house pink, and that would stimulate the others to do something different. So you'd walk up and down the sidewalk and see a great variety of colors."- Jack Boyte -

Shotgun Moved

In the Urban Renewal era of the 1960s and 1970s, destruction of Charlotte's Shotgun housing was seen as a proud goal. Today, fewer than three dozen are left scattered throughout the city.  "Too often our view of architecture is focused solely on the unique monumental structures designed in large part to display the wealth and power of the elite ... while the greatest part of the built environment -- the houses that most people live in -- goes unnoticed."- Michael Vlach -

Out of Africa

The actual origin more likely goes back to Haiti and Africa in the 1700s. The name may have originated from a western African term, to-gun, which means, "place of assembly." The description, probably used in New Orleans by Afro-Haitian slaves, may have been misunderstood and reinterpreted as "Shotgun."

In the 1970s, folklorist and social historian John Michael Vlach studied the Shotgun house style and discovered it existed primarily in the South. A great concentration of them were in New Orleans. From there, he traced the form back to Haiti, where he believes it had originated during the 1700s. The porch and gable-end door came from native Haitian Indian tradition, and the wood construction was borrowed from French colonists.

But the basic plan, with no hall, square rooms, and rectangular exterior came from western African slaves, specifically Yoruba tribesmen. Today, Haitian blacks still build thatched-roofed "cailles," which, except for their primitive building materials, look exactly like urban American Shotgun houses.

A village lost, two houses saved

Lula McCullough was a longtime resident of one of the restored houses now located on the property of the Afro-American Cultural Center, which is also significant from both an architectural and historical point of view. "It is a remarkable example of churches built by black congregations after the Civil War," said Boyte.

When the McCulloughs moved in their Shotgun house sometime in the mid-1930s, the house was part of a small neighborhood known as "Blandville," just off South Tryon Street. It was one of many black villages that grew up around the edges of the city in the 19th century.

Like First Ward, Blandville was targeted for urban renewal in the 1960s and '70s. The Shotgun houses gave way to warehouses, offices and industrial buildings. By 1985, all that remained of the old black neighborhood were the side-by-side Shotgun houses at 153 and 155 West Bland Street. Both houses, which date back to the late 1890s, occupied a single plot.

architecture is focused solely on the unique monumental structures designed in large part to display the wealth and power of the elite of Shotgun housesSuch neighborhoods came about during a time when racial tensions were at a peak, inflamed by white supremist rhetoric. Strategies —some made into law, others less formal—developed to separate the races.

Black residents and shopkeepers essentially were evicted from the center of the city. White property owners encouraged this shift by offering improved housing opportunities for blacks in specific sections. Clusters of rental Shotgun houses sprang up, as well as a streetcar suburb for black home buyers. African-American neighborhoods began to rim the city.

That's when Blandville and many of the other black neighborhoods such as Biddleville came into being.

Turning a "hull" into a home

Lula McCullough recalls that when she and her husband, C. Henry McCullough, first moved into the house on West Bland Street, it was "only a hull." The toilet was an outdoor privy, and the only source of water was from a single spigot out back. The McCulloughs had much of the house repaired to make it livable and over the years installed indoor plumbing and water.

The few remaining Shotgun houses in the city are historically important because of both the unique character of their design and the distinct role they have played in the lives of many African-American residents of Charlotte. Not only did many leading citizens of the city and elsewhere spend part or all of their early lives in a Shotgun house, they were the homes of some three or four generations of black Charlotteans, and thereby became a significant part of the city's history.

Acknowledgements:

"Houses of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County," by Jack Boyte, local architect and historian; "Sorting Out the New South City" by Thomas W. Hanchett, and the survey and research report completed for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.
# http://www.landmarkscommission.org
# http://www.cmhpf.org

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