SHOTGUN OR NOT?: 814 L Street SE

Perhaps it's exageration to say that the shotgun houses are to southern music as log cabins were to 19th century politics. However, Elvis Presley was born in one, the Neville Brothers grew up in one, and bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have died in one.

Certainly the builders of these simple "poor people's houses" would be amazed at Rice University's "Shotguns 2001", which combined an exhibition of John Biggers ' shotgun house-themed paintings, scholarly lectures in a neighborhood of restored shotgun houses, and a speech on "House Art" by feminist icon bell hooks.

And what would they think of the gold shotgun house Christmas tree ornaments for sale in New Orleans or the expensive immaculately-detailed wooden replicas for the HO train layout that encircles the gifts at the foot of the tree?

The shotgun house story is blasted through with ironies, not the least of which is that such a straightforward house engenders such complicated controversies.

First, does anyone agree on what a shotgun house is besides "simple"? The name calls to mind a very plain, small rectangular one story frame house constructed to provide shelter at minimum possible cost. But an internet search on "shotgun houses" also returns images of two-story "over-under" buildings and "double-barrel" structures with side-by-side units under the same roof. And must a true shotgun house have a gabled porch roof or will a flat one do?

And even "simple" becomes a suspect word when we look at what are commonly accepted to be shotgun houses. This Old House recently featured the "renovation" of a double-barrel New Orleans shotgun with six foot tall front windows and gingerbread-encrusted eaves beneath a pyramidial roof. Perhaps the essence of a shotgun house is its floorplan. A shotgun house is one room wide and at least two rooms deep, with front, interior, and back doors aligned.

It is often said that these houses acquired their name because, if all the doors were open, a shotgun could be fired from front porch to backyard without hitting anything. But even this near-cliche is disputed for reasons beyond the tendency of shotgun pellets to scatter widely.

Since the early 1990s, a widely-accepted theory is that the shotgun house design originated among plantation slaves in the Carribean, and was carried to New Orleans and disseminated throughout the south by slaves and free African-Americans. It has been claimed that the "shotgun" name is a corruption of several Yoruba words related to the concept of "house".

An irony is that exterminating shotgun houses was once a progressive goal. Well into the 1970s, shotgun houses were viewed as inherently-substandard, a symbol of poverty like the unpaved streets and outdoor plumbing that characterized the neighborhoods where they stood. Urban renewal relentlessly demolished them by the block.

UNIONTOWN SHOTGUN: 1413 V Street SE shortly before it was demolished

Today such cities as Houston and Charlotte are conserving their surviving shotgun houses by moving them into specially fabricated "Shotgun Historic Districts." Santa Monica, California recently moved one of its few remaining beachfront shotguns to the city airport while a permanent preservation site s found. At the same time, shotgun houses which had survived intact through benign neglect are now gentrified into victorian cottage personae in the process of being "restored".

Washington has been a southern-style city for most of its existence, so it might be expected to have a great many shotgun houses. However, this does not appear to be the case. Perhaps the most likely place to find shotguns would have been among the notorious alley dwellings that were demolished in the 1930s and '40s. However, in photos most of these appear to have been very plain two story brick and wooden structures which allowed more density than single story houses. Perhaps the best DC neighborhood for finding shotgun houses is Deanwood, where there is a sprinkling on the sidestreets between Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue and Sherriff Road NE.

Although shotgun houses are most often associated with poor African-American neighborhoods, each of the pictured houses appear to have had early inhabitants who were white. Although it likely has a shotgun floorplan, 814 L Street SE might not be considered a true shotgun house because it has a flat roof and no evidence of a front porch. Census records suggest that it was built between 1880 and 1900, when the surrounding blocks were a 100% white working class neighborhood. Many heads of neighborhood households were in the mechanical trades and presumably worked in the nearby Naval Gun Factory.

1314 V Street SE is another tradesman's home in a formerly segregated white neighborhood. It has many signature shotgun house touches, including a tin gabled roof and full-width front porch, which in this case has a flat, steeply-sloping roof. Some catalogers claim that because shotgun houses are meant to be packed cheek-by-jowl on narrow urban lots, pure examples should lack side windows, as 314 V does. 314's one claim to ornament is its marque, which implies a second story. Perhaps the ornamental marque's narrower original boards were meant to accent the wide clapboards of the sidewalls which peak out of a tear in the faux brick siding. In December, 2002,1314 V was suddenly demolished despite its location in a historic district.

Recently 1229 E Street SE received almost as much newspaper ink as the Stephen Decatur House. Built on the backside of Capital Hill in the 1850s, 1229 E was the home of Ernest Tungel, a German-born "huckster" and his wife Louisa as late as the 1880s . Over the next 100 years, Tungels were followed by a long-term residents named Hartley and a succession of blue-collar tenants. Eventually the house fell vacant. Recently, 1229 was under a death sentence. Several development proposals were made which would combine 1229's lot with the lots behind it, which front on Pennsylvania Avenue. At the same time, a significant number of neighborhood residents lobbied for the vacant house to be demolished. Demolition was opposed by the Capital Hill Restoration Society, which argued that Capitl Hill had just 2 similar houses, one of which is 814 L Street SE. On September 12 the Advisory Neighborhood Commission voted to support the application for raze permits, unless the Capital Hill Restoration Society devised an alternative plan for the building. However, in what the Hill Rag newspaper called "a hard-nosed decision that went against the advice of ANC 6B and the pleas of many neighbors", the DC Historic Preservation Review Board has voted to deny its necessary permission for demolition. HPRB has no resources to restore the building itself and, while 1229 has a new lease on life, the final chapter in its story is yet to be written.

1229 E Street SE : Before The Reprieve

The longstanding controversy over the fate of 1229 E Street SE is too complex to summarize here. Some links to recent local news coverage of the issue are: