Clicks & Mortar

A Real Estate Blog - Est. 2009

Workhorse of the Memphis Housing Stock: Shotgun Homes

The shotgun house is usually at the bottom of the architectural spectrum in Southern cities.  They’re small, utilitarian, and frequently unkempt.  But it’s worth taking a closer look at this building type since so many of them were built, especially in Memphis.  Elvis Presley may have left this life at Graceland, but he started it in a shotgun house.  And with the recent real estate trend of “micro-homes” shotguns might have their moment in the sun.

WC Handy House in Memphis, by Flickr user sipes23
Photo by sipes23 on Flickr.

First off, what’s in a name?  To understand the moniker you need to know about the physical layout of a shotgun.  They’re one room wide, and one to five rooms deep, with no hallway.  And given that the doorways are usually lined up in tandem, one could theoretically fire off a bullet and have it enter and exit the house unencumbered.   You’d think the same could be said of any object (a baseball, perhaps?), but the firearm connection is probably a reflection of its mid-nineteenth century origins.  If you encounter a shotgun house that doesn’t have aligned doorways, there might be a superstitious motive in place:  ghosts and spirits were said to favor homes that they could pass right through.

Shotgun houses first debuted in this country in 1840s New Orleans.  Where they originated from is still a mystery, but some historians think the style was brought there from Haiti.  They first appeared in Memphis just after the Civil War, where they continued to be built up until World War II.  Even though they originally housed people of the working class, they’ve come to be associated with abject poverty.  This fact, combined with the layout’s impracticality for many people, has meant that they frequently succumb to the bulldozer.   A notable example of their successful re-use can be seen in Memphis’s Delmar-Lema Village.  Here, Memphis Heritage headed up an initiative to restore a whole block of shotguns which are now in tip-top shape and providing affordable housing.

Shotguns have also seen new life as places to rest your head temporarily. If you’re passing through the Mississippi backwoods and desire a unique lodging experience, look no further than the Shack Up Inn.  Actually a compound of “shacks,” it provides the opportunity to experience a shotgun for a night or two, which might be just enough for some people.  It’s a kitschy, surreal place, with “authentic” details like peeling paint and wrenches instead of shower knobs.