Today, low-cost housing proves to be much more than
we first thought. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
We've all seen those
elementary houses in poor neighborhoods. They
consist of three or four rooms in a row, with a
forward-slanting roof over a front porch. John
Michael Vlach finds that those old houses tell a
very interesting story.
We call them shotgun houses. In the 1930s we
decided they must be a regional invention from the
Louisiana bayou country. That's where the older
ones seemed to be concentrated.
But Vlach looks more closely at old records. He
traces the shotgun house to the early 1800s. Then
he finds older shotgun houses in the sugar-growing
plantation islands -- in Haiti and the Dominican
Republic. Finally, he finds that same distinctive
design in West Africa.
If those were the houses of the poor, they were
houses of people forced to be poor. They're an
adaptation of homes the slaves had left behind.
They're an African technology carried into the new
world. But they came by an indirect route.
You see, the American slave trade was far too
brutal. We systematically severed slaves from their
cultural origins. The shotgun house had to find its
way here through the Caribbean.
In 1810 the population of New Orleans was just over
12,000. One third was white, one third was slave.
The last third was a population of free blacks,
most of whom had come here from Haiti. They brought
the shotgun house design with them. And what they
made of it was not ghetto housing by any means.
The shotgun house builders in Haiti had written
African motifs into their exterior timber framing.
Now shotgun houses in New Orleans sprouted American
gingerbread trimming. By the mid-19th century, many
are positively Victorian in appearance.
When the cost of wood fell during the late 1800s,
the shotgun house did indeed become the best way
the poor could keep a roof over their heads. But,
by then, shotgun houses had added a new element to
the American architectural vocabulary.
You see, shotgun houses gave us the southern porch.
We didn't previously have porches like that in
America. Like the shotgun house itself, southern
porches are now all over America.
So the next time you see those rows of small linear
houses in poor neighborhoods, consider what you're
really seeing. These are the remains of an African
technology that reached considerable elegance among
people of middle means in the 19th century.
And it's a technology that left an indelible and
formative mark on our landscape. It propagated that
outward-looking sign of community over America --
the front porch from which we've greeted friends
and neighbors ever since.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Vlach, J.M., The Shotgun house: An African
Architectural Legacy, Common Places: Readings
in American Vernacular Architecture. (D.
Upton and J.M. Vlach, eds.) Athens, GA: The
University of Georgia Press, 1986, pp. 58-78.
Vlach, J.M., Sources of the Shotgun House:
African and Caribbean Antecedents for Afro-American
Architecture. Vols. I and II, Doctoral
Dissertation, Department of Folklore, Indiana
University, March, 1975.
Vlach, J.M., Afro-Americans, America's
Architectural Roots: Ethnic Groups that Built
America. The Preservation Press, pp. 43- 47.
I am grateful to Ellen Beasley, architectural
historian, and Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architecture Librarian, for suggesting the topic,
and to M. Culbertson for providing the source
Photo by Ellen Beasley
A typical shotgun house in Galveston, Texas
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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