The following excerpt is from “The Shotgun Cottage in Houston: A Brief Overview,” an essay by architectural historian Stephen Fox, who is quoted in our February 2012 story about Houston’s Third Ward. Fox is a fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas and an adjunct lecturer in architecture at the University of Houston and Rice University. You can read his complete essay in Row: Trajectories Through the Shotgun House, Architecture at Rice 40, edited by David Brown and William Williams (Rice University School of Architecture, 2004).
The Shotgun Cottage in Houston: A Brief Overview
By Stephen Fox
The shotgun cottage has been a characteristic Houston house type for over a hundred years. Associated especially with working class African-American neighborhoods in Houston and the South, it was a local, vernacular house type that in the last decades of the nineteenth century made the transition to a widely diffused, mass-produced, popular house type.
…[It] originated as a U.S. house type in New Orleans, according to the pioneering research of John M. Vlach. Vlach traces the shotgun type to the Yoruba dwellings of Nigeria, via the indigenous bohío of Santo Domingo and the maison basse of Haïti. Vlach found an example of the shotgun type recorded as early as 1833 in the New Orleans Notarial Archives. On the northern periphery of the French Quarter, one still finds block fronts composed of New Orleanian variations of the shotgun cottage, both single and double houses, with the overhanging Creole abatvent sheltering the sidewalk in place of a front veranda. The transformation of the shotgun from a localized New Orleans vernacular house type to a popular southern house type corresponded chronologically to the extension of railroad networks through the South in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
The shotgun cottage has gradually been transformed from an architectural emblem of poverty and shame into an icon of Houston
…Where people of color were not systematically excluded from civil society, those who attained middle class status appear to have gravitated to the mainstream of contemporary material cultural expression. The shotgun cottage is fascinating because, as it made the transition from a local New Orleans-based vernacular house type to a popular southern house type, it became implicated in the dominant culture’s social construction of superiority/inferiority. From a white perspective, the shotgun cottage was socially constructed as “Negro”; from a white and black middle class perspective, it was socially constructed as “working class.”
…What became Project Row Houses, the Frank Cash row in the 2400 and 2500 blocks of Holman and Division avenues in Third Ward, was built about 1939 as planning began for Allen Parkway Village. Although its five-room houses conform to the iconic image of the shotgun cottage with their front-facing gables (reiterated in the decorative gablet framing the front porch) and bungalow-style brackets, they deviate from the pure type by being one-and-a-half rooms wide rather than the single linear file of rooms historically associated with the shotgun type. The repetition of house fronts along the block faces speaks to what is so compelling about the organization of this house type in rows: the capacity of a house so narrow that alone it would be spatially insignificant to form a collective that shapes space urbanistically. It is the strong form of the shotgun cottage that endows these small houses with the presence and dignity that are essential attributes of urban architecture.
The proximity of the cottages to each other reveals their status as economic instruments, built four to a lot (two facing the street, two facing Division, which is actually an alley through the center of a standard sized Houston city block) to maximize site coverage and the investor’s return. The narrow intervals between the houses make visitors aware of the closeness with which African-American working class renters were compelled to live, in contrast to owner-occupied houses along Holman Avenue, built one to a lot. Necessity begot ingenuity: the porches and kitchens were located on the west side of the houses, and the bedrooms and bathrooms on the east where they would have access to the prevailing southeast breeze. As bell hooks described in her talk “House Art,” necessity also begot the social rituals that domesticated rented houses and turned them into people’s homes. The back porch was a space of domestic sociability related to the shared back yard, where the clothesline now memorializes the work that transpired in such spaces….
This type of urban housing proved amazingly durable in Houston. Row houses were built as rental housing in working class African-American neighborhoods through the 1950s. These houses were adapted, however, to successive trends in the production of domestic architecture and space in Houston, metamorphosing into mini-ranch houses, built at grade on concrete slab foundations, with walls of brick-veneered wood stud construction and rooms lit by high-set horizontal windows. Rather than facing the street, rows of such houses tended to cluster around a paved driveway and parking apron. But it was not unusual for these houses to retain small front porches that continued to be used for socializing. Although these ranch houses no longer qualify typologically as shotgun cottages, their descent from the shotgun row is obvious.
The connection between art and life that Project Row Houses makes was a constant theme in the art of John T. Biggers.
…The connection between art and life that Project Row Houses makes was a constant theme in the art of John T. Biggers. One sees in his painting, Shotgun, Third Ward #1 of 1966, a row of cottages strikingly similar to those at Project Row Houses. In his Shotguns series of 1987, Biggers treated the shotgun cottage iconically rather than naturalistically. He frequently composed the fields of these paintings with repeated, flat, frontal gables to imply the density and weight of African-American culture in the South. Robert Farris Thompson calls attention to Biggers’ equally iconic treatment of household items associated with everyday domestic life, reinforcing the representation of the shotgun as a symbol of collective dignity and cultural identity. Biggers’ paintings challenge the social construction of the shotgun row as an icon of inferiority by insisting that viewers who might construe it as such reevaluate their own judgments and critically examine their prejudices.
Biggers painted the Shotguns series in the midst of a contentious debate in Houston, lasting from the late 1970s through the end of the century, over the fate of Fourth Ward. That his efforts, and those of other artists and architects, to make connections across boundaries of social class and race were exceptional is tragically apparent in how this debate was resolved. Three successive mayors of Houston—Lee Brown, Bob Lanier, and Kathy Whitmire—spared no effort to destroy Fourth Ward, which, when it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Freedmen’s Town Historic District in 1985, was one of the last intact late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African-American neighborhoods in a large southern city. Paul Hester’s poignant photographs convey the violence wreaked on the low-income residents of Fourth Ward, many of whom had lived in the neighborhood as renters for generations, as the engine of state-sponsored “revitalization” displaced them and, between 1999 and 2003, eradicated an irreplaceable cultural landscape.
…Thanks to John Biggers; Rick Lowe, Michael Peranteau, and Deborah Grotfeldt at Project Row Houses; and those whom they have inspired, the shotgun cottage has gradually been transformed from an architectural emblem of poverty and shame into an icon of Houston. An overview of its development highlights the ways in which a house type that has more often seemed like an economic instrument than a work of architecture accrues cultural density and meaning. Its material economy, its reproducibility, its adaptability to changes in architectural style and the organization of domestic space indicate the qualities that made the shotgun cottage such an enduring popular house type. Examined historically, what is so intriguing is the way in which the shotgun cottage has come to be valued for the very attributes that caused it to be scorned for much of the twentieth century. This process of examination and reevaluation is especially notable in Houston because at Project Row Houses the shotgun cottage has come to stand for an alternative vision of Houston, not as an abstract field for pursuing profit, but as a city in which people might live lives of mutual enjoyment, edification, and respect.