Early next month, a panel of preservationists will select a house in Louisville to be rehabilitated under a new project called Preservation S.O.S.—Save Our Shotguns. It’s a style of house that symbolizes many of Louisville’s older neighborhoods. There are many variations, but shotgun houses typically have a long, rectangular floor plan: one room wide, three to five rooms in a row with doorways often on the same side of the house.
One common belief is that the name shotgun house refers to the ability to fire a shotgun cleanly from the front through the back door.
The shotgun style likely made its way into the U.S. from the West Indies and became popular in the South during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, offering affordable housing in working class areas.
In Louisville, they’re a part of the fabric of neighborhoods like Germantown, Butchertown, Smoketown and Portland, but some are showing their age, and Portland in particular has a significant number of houses in distress.
"In this area, you’re seeing a lot of blight when it comes to vacant properties, many of which are the shotgun houses, and I think that’s what inspired me to try to come forward and do something and start a program that would really make an impact," said Marianne Zickhur, executive director of Preservation Louisville, which is spearheading the S.O.S. program. Zickhur grew up in the Portland neighborhood.
Zickhur and says shotguns are popular as starter homes for many young buyers. Others like how their simple design lends itself to fix-up and addition projects.
That’s the case on both counts for Jill and Gary Sampson, who live with their two cats in a shotgun house they recently renovated in Germantown.
Jill bought the house in 1995 because of its reasonable price and proximity to her job.
Built in 1905, it has an upstairs room, and like many shotguns, some quirks. One of its doors is out of line with the others; those imaginary shotgun pellets would have to zig zag to make a clean exit here.
"When people ask me what kind of home I live in, I say, well, ours isn’t just a standard shotgun, it’s a dogleg, camel-back shotgun," said Gary Sampson during a recent tour.
"But it turned out I really like it," said Jill Sampson, "It’s really open and airy and it’s convenient and its great for one or two people. My friends say you should move into a bigger house, because I can afford a bigger house, and I’m like, why? This is perfect."
Ton Ali is a Realtor who bought and renovated a brick shotgun several years ago in the Original Highlands neighborhood, it dates back to the turn of the 20th century.
"There’s nothing like them. I call this my brick trailer, just because of the way it’s shaped, but I’ve always kind of liked it," he said from his kitchen. "It’s very efficient—it’s just neat, the construction’s very different. They’re popular for the people who really want an authentic style of house for this neighborhood. And this neighborhood is still really popular."
There are no firm figures on how many shotgun houses there are in Louisville, but the city is often mentioned in the same breath with New Orleans, where Patty Gay guesses the number exceeds 20-thousand. Gay is the executive director of that city’s Preservation Resource Center, which began a shotgun house rehabiliation effort 20 years ago. She says shotgun houses can play a critical role in keeping a neighborhood vibrant.
"The problem is related to marketing the inner city neighborhoods and rebuilding populations in our older neighborhoods. So the marketing of the shotgun house is a way to do that, to develop a positive image for these older neighborhoods," she said.
Here in Louisville, about 40 shotgun homes are being considered for the first rescue and rehabilitation project under Preservation S.O.S.
Officials aren’t saying where those home are or how much money will be spent on the project, which is getting a grant from PNC Bank and volunteers from Habitat for Humanity. A house will be chosen next month, with work scheduled to begin this fall.