Me, I always wanted to live in a camelback shotgun.
Camelbacks are just so cool. So New Orleans, so emblematic of the quirky way we think, even in our architecture. Where else do they build half a house up top?
So I sit in my comfortable but bland two-story, slab-foundation brick home, in an area that Stewart sums up architecturally as Perry Mason Modern, and dream of a wide front porch and gingerbread.
I am not alone. The emotional tug of the shotgun style bridges just about every socio-economic gap in the city. Every New Orleanian, it seems, has a story or a memory about a shotgun house. Many of those will be showcased in "New Orleans' Favorite Shotguns," an exhibit of photos and personal vignettes opening Friday at the Preservation Resource Center.
"The Garden District has 20 mansions, but 250 shotguns," points out the PRC's Mary Fitzpatrick, organizer of the exhibit. "It's the architectural thread that ties New Orleans together. It's our architectural common denominator."
Certainly I'm a member of the shotgun memory-by-association. Our first house was a narrow cobalt-blue sidehall shotgun in an "up and coming" area of the Irish Channel. The block hasn't come up much since those days, but I still drive by now and then to see how the house is faring.
I recall the indelible purple African violet plant food that our puppy spilled on the white carpet, almost leading Stewart to canine homicide (caninocide?). I remember my dad carefully laying the brick patio, by hand, and the scent of the Carolina jasmine my mom helped us plant against the back fence.
I recall a rambunctious party we threw, and waking up the next morning to find a single perfect crystal wine glass left standing in the middle of Delachaise Street. I remember Stewart, a young white lawyer, buying the occasional bottle of Wild Turkey for the two brothers, African-American and elderly, who lived next door, and sitting on the stoop to share a glass with them.
That little shotgun house speaks as eloquently of our quality of life here as a rum-laced dish of bread pudding or a Wednesday-night concert in Lafayette Square listening to Irma Thomas croon "It's Raining."
"If you think of all the photos of second-lines you've seen, would any of them be the same if they were marching down a street lined with ranch houses?" asks Stephanie Bruno, preservationist and head of the PRC's Operation Comeback. "Shotguns are part of the fabric, the background, of life here."
At its most elemental, the shotgun is a one-room-wide house without halls. Supposedly, the name stemmed from the fact that you could shoot a gun through the house from front to back, though that's debatable, since the doors often don't line up right. What is more certain is that the design fit snugly on the 25-foot-wide lots unique to New Orleans.Not that the shotgun design is limited to our city alone -- similar room-behind-room styles pop up across the world. But, just as that oyster po-boy has a more personal local etymology than, say, a Philly cheesesteak sandwich, our shotguns speak uniquely about us.
"Shotguns are so familiar to us that they work their way into our perception of how the world looks," Bruno said. "Every neighborhood restaurant has a shotgun down the block; every music club has one across the street."
The Creoles started building shotguns around the 1830s, mostly as single-family residences. Although true scholars probably would say that the single shotgun is the only true shotgun, New Orleanians play many riffs on the basic theme.
The sidehall shotgun, with three openings across the front, adds a hall or gallery down one side, to allow private entrances to each room. The double shotgun offers side-by-side shotguns, and probably arose as a way to get two houses on one lot in the days when an influx of immigrants -- to, say, dig the New Basin Canal -- made housing an issue. It's a concept that resonates in post-Katrina New Orleans.
The most unusual double shotgun is a single-plus-sidehall, with five openings across the facade (door, window, window, window, door). And stacked shotguns yield the two-story shotgun, which purists say isn't a shotgun at all.
The shotgun once conjured owners of modest means. But in the past half century, the well-heeled have bought into the concept, converting double shotguns into more spacious singles. Others have reconfigured interiors to turn small, closed-off rooms into more open spaces, making room for offices and big bathrooms and places to put built-in wine coolers.
And that's as it should be. The shotgun is part of our architectural heritage; we can look back at it for lessons, then carry it into the future."At some point, we forgot how to build for our climate," Bruno said. "Shotguns are built off the ground, with high ceilings and plaster walls and slate roofs that allow them to breathe. Even now, with air-conditioning, it's a better way to build, certainly given moisture and pest concerns."
Katrina washed away many New Orleans shotguns -- both literally and figuratively. Bruno talks sadly of a Holy Cross couple who, after the storm, had to sell the shotgun home that had been in the family for 80 years. I wonder what will happen to all those empty shotguns and what will be built on all those empty lots.
Architectural purists think houses should be "of their time." That is, we shouldn't build new houses identical to old ones, in an imitative and therefore lesser style. Others argue that we shouldn't let go of enduring designs.
There's a compromise, one that makes a lot of sense as we replace structures around the city. Architecture can be evolutionary -- a gentle break from the past, but without losing a versatile and proven configuration. Add the deeper porches and contemporary interiors, but keep the long, narrow shotgun house that perfectly fits the lot.
Stewart and I have rebuilt our spacious lakefront house, and enjoy the soft new carpets, upgraded kitchen, shiny paint and new light fixtures. But in a few years we'll be ready to downsize. And shotguns these days make as good a forever house as a starter one.
So I'm keeping an eye out for a cute little camelback, on a street with leafy oak trees and with room enough inside for his-and-her closets. Call it evolutionary thinking