How tiny shotgun houses can help solve Dallas’ housing crisis — if we’d just stop knocking them down

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It should come as no surprise that in Dallas, a city known (or perhaps notorious) for its mansions and McMansions, the lowly shotgun house has become an endangered architectural species. These small houses, typically with three rooms aligned back-to-back (a shotgun blast ostensibly could go straight through without hitting an interior wall) were once common in low-income and working-class areas, especially neighborhoods designated for African-Americans during the Jim Crow era.

A combination of obsolescence, neglect and development has pushed the shotgun house to the brink of extinction in Dallas. Just a few weeks ago, on Valentine’s Day, the city demolished a shotgun house on Cliff Street in the Tenth Street Historic District for code violations, despite protests from preservation advocates.

"The city of Dallas for years has made end-runs around historic protections and has not recognized the value of the district except by lip service," says Robert Swann, a Harvard-trained architect who has studied the shotgun house.

That is an unacceptable loss of history. Their disappearance is a shame, not least because there is something appealing about the simplicity and stylistic variation.

"I just think they’re the most interesting typology," says William Baker, a designer with Dallas interiors and architecture firm JonesBaker, who in February launched the Dallas Shotgun Project with the goal of photographing and documenting all of the remaining examples in the city.

It is a challenging task, because there is no database or record of shotgun house construction. "They were small, nondescript buildings that have been lost over time," says David Preziosi, executive director of Preservation Dallas. "People didn’t understand their importance, so it would be hard to get an accurate count of what was here originally."

That modesty has also left the shotgun relatively unstudied by researchers. "As an architectural historian, we look at high-style buildings," says Tara Dudley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied shotguns. "These are really important vernacular forms that should be preserved."

Baker is systematic in his search, using the city’s online property tax appraisal (DCAD) maps to isolate the small lots characteristic of shotguns. He then looks at Google satellite views and targets the streets with plausible candidates.

Sometimes, the searches are fruitful, but often he arrives to find an empty lot with the crumbled remains of his target. Thus far he has documented some 30 houses. There are almost certainly under 100 remaining.

The project, as well, is not without its dangers. A lone figure taking unsolicited photographs in neighborhoods that have been neglected and exploited raises suspicions. Stray dogs are a menace, as is the occasional character of dubious intent. In such cases, Baker photographs from the safety of his brick-colored Honda Element. "Drive-bys," he calls such shoots.

But most shotgun residents and neighbors seem to be interested in the project, and are happy to share their stories and their houses.

"It is what it is, but I like it," says Leon Brown, on the porch of his Bonton shotgun house.

Leon Brown, a barber who has rented a shotgun in the formerly segregated neighborhood of Bonton for three years, invited Baker in to see his three-room house at 2416 Anderson St. It was of standard shotgun layout: living room up front, leading to a bedroom, and then the kitchen in the back. Brown moved from another shotgun on a nearby block, appreciating the form for its no-nonsense simplicity. "It is what it is, but I like it," he says.

It is that simplicity that was responsible for the shotgun’s proliferation across the United States, and especially the South, in the first half of the 20th century.

Its beginnings can be traced to a series of vernacular house types: the basic West African two-room house, the bohio of the West Indian Arawak people, and the Haitian caille. Some historians speculate that the origin of the name shotgun is not actually the firearm, but the African term to-gun, or house of gathering.

That communal sense is promoted by the nearly universal presence of a front porch. In warm climates, life was pushed outdoors, and interaction with neighbors — presumably on their own shotgun porches — was encouraged. Within, the alignment of open rooms provided ventilation, and gabled roofs pulled out hot air.

"It’s a form that speaks to African-American origins before enslavement," says Dudley. "It is a very communal space. There’s no escaping anyone in the house, so you’re in constant contact, and that’s a part of the African-American tradition."

It was within the narrow lots of New Orleans that the shotgun developed into the form familiar today, driven by a pressing housing demand among free people of color. The shotgun combined their building traditions with French construction methods, and the booming American lumber market.

(Michael Hogue/Staff Artist )

That was true in Dallas. "In the 1922 Sanborn [insurance map] there are very few shotgun houses," says Swann. "Often shotgun houses were developed by absentee landlords as for-rent houses. Most African-American laborers built whatever was fashionable at the time."

"I’ve heard there’s a tradition among wooden boat carpenters that when times were slow they’d travel up into the mainland by railroad and build houses," says Mark Martinek, a developer who purchased and restored two shotguns in the Cedars neighborhood. "Maintaining what we have left that ties us to the past, that’s important to me," he says. "I would love to fix more of them."

The shotgun’s simplicity made it easy to adapt and embellish. Those looking to elevate the status of a home could add architectural elements — Greek Revival columns, say, or Victorian gingerbread detailing.

A shotgun house could be expanded to the side or given a second story in the rear, and was often dubbed a camelback because of its humped appearance. Doors could be placed on center, or offset to the left or right, and roof styles became increasingly complex, moving from the simple gable, to the hip, to the jerkinhead — a squared-off hip.

"It seems like it’s such a basic form," says Baker, but there is great variety. "It’s really in the pitch of the roof, the eave detail, the columns, those are the three main features, and the placement of the door. Some have an offset porch with a smaller gable; some have an engaged porch roof."

But there are fewer and fewer remaining, as the forces of attrition take their toll. Baker tried to purchase one, only to find it demolished before a contract could be consummated. The story is typical. Baker reached an agreement on the price of a house on Park Avenue in Dallas. "It was just boarded up at the time, and there were 100 cats living under it," he says. But there was a problem in researching the title history — a typical problem with such houses — and during negotiations a demolition order was stapled to the door by the city. Before the situation could be resolved, the house was rubble.

It should never come to this, and it doesn’t have to. "The solution is to not have court-ordered demolitions, and to have the city provide incentives for the preservation of historic properties," says Preziosi.

That the city would demolish, rather than repair, such houses at a moment of crisis in the affordable housing market is especially egregious. From their very inception, shotgun houses have been effective for low-income homebuilding. Shotguns promote density, encourage community, and provide for privacy and independence.

This is precisely what has happened in Houston, where the nonprofit Project Row Houses recently restored 19 shotguns in the historic Third Ward into a community of affordable housing, with a plan to build 10 new homes modeled on the shotgun typology. "We design for independence nowadays," says founder Rick Lowe, a MacArthur Fellow. "Shotgun houses were designed for interdependence. I’m not advocating that shotgun houses should be a part of everyone’s life, but we can’t say that the suburban-style house with a two-car garage is the American way, because everybody can’t afford it, everybody doesn’t need it, and everybody doesn’t want it."

There is no reason such a project could not work in Dallas. But before the city can begin thinking about building more affordable housing with the shotgun typology as a model, it must stop destroying the few that still remain.

Mark Lamster is the architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News, a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture.

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