In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast I educate Rebecca on Midtown Memphis’ favorite type of home – the quintessentially Southern shotgun house.
Shotgun houses can be found all over the south, including Memphis. First up, let’s understand the format of a shotgun house. It’s narrow – just one room wide – and would be at least three rooms deep to count. Typically, the first room was a living room, then bedrooms, and then the kitchen at the back. The original shotgun house would have been 12-feet wide with a single window beside the front door. Later in time, as we’ll see, this design will change. The name comes from the fact that a gun could be fired at the front door and the bullet would travel straight out the back door without hitting anything, since there’s no hallway.
Where these original shotgun houses came from remains a mystery. Some say they’re African floor plans that were brought to Haiti by slaves in the colonial era. The first ones documented in the U.S. were built in New Orleans in the 1840s. They then began spreading throughout urban areas. The “second wave” of shotgun home building made it to Memphis, so the ones built here in the 1860s and 70s have fancier architectural elements than the first wave houses. Finally, the “third wave” came about in the late 1880s during industrialization. This time period featured simplified shotgun homes constructed as working class rental units.
Because of constant changes throughout time, it’s uncertain that all of these Memphis shotgun house neighborhoods still exist, so explore at your own risk 🙂
659 Jennette Place was the site of a famous Memphis shotgun house, as it’s where blues musician W.C. Handy wrote songs like “Yellow Dog Blues” and “Beale Street Blues.” It’s now at 352 Beale Street as a museum.
406 Lucy Avenue is where you can find the shotgun house Aretha Franklin was born in… and rumor has it that her bathtub is still in there. Since the time of this episode’s recording, it seems that renewed efforts are underway to restore the home for history.
In a book on Memphis architecture, Wells Avenue was listed as a wealth of shotgun houses, the best in the city. But its National Register of Historic Places designation was removed in 2014 so I’m wondering if they are still there. Lost Memphis found two shotgun homes there in 2014. These are/were built around the turn of the century and are closer to 25 feet across… the same street feature/d 1920s bungalows as well.
Belz Court was constructed in 1936 to house African American families working in Philip Belz’s North Memphis Industrial District. There were a dozen shotgun duplexes there on either side of a “pedestrian court” – no driveways or anything for parking because the planners expected everyone would just walk to work. Because of it’s old-fashioned design, only about three of them were left in 2014 because they just aren’t very practical for modern families. Lost Memphis also went there to check out what’s left.
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