Effort afoot to restore shotguns across city

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 17, 2002

Vicksburg resident Sam Ferrell installs a new screen door on the front of a house owned by Willie Milton at 1002 Howard St.(The Vicksburg Post/C. TODD SHERMAN)

[06/17/02]As shotgun houses are disappearing across Vicksburg and the nation, an effort here may see some saved and restored.

The attraction is their simplicity. The typical design is long and narrow with a gable-ended entrance, one-room wide and two or three rooms deep. The homes were typically built close together in long rows often in the hundreds in Vicksburg and across the South.

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Nancy Bell of the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation said that in the past 20 years, the city has probably lost nearly 200 of the frame houses to demolition or neglect.

“They’re important to historic preservation because they are such a part of our architectural heritage,” Bell said.

The name of the style, “shotgun,” is somewhat of a mystery. Bell said there are two theories. One is that the name is a corruption of “to-gun,” the African Yoruba word for “house,” used by the former slaves who occupied most of them.

Another idea, more prevalent today, is because if a shotgun is fired through the front door of the house with all the doors open, the blast will go out the back without hitting any walls.

The design traces to New Orleans in the early 19th century after thousands of free blacks came to New Orleans from Haiti following the revolution of Toussiant L’Overture.

Most still standing were built between 1850 and 1940 and range in style from very simple to Victorian.

City of Vicksburg architect David Clement, who specializes in historic structures, said shotgun houses were often built by industries to provide inexpensive housing for factory workers.

He said that as a style, they are worth saving, “just to kind of realize how this country was built.”

No one knows how many are left in the city although shotgun homes are scattered throughout most of the older parts of Vicksburg. Some, like the one owned by Willie Milton on Howard Street, are being restored for rent or sale while others have been left to deteriorate.

Once the structures become uninhabitable, city officials normally go in and demolish them. Under a program started this year, homes like those on Hunt Street are being granted a brief reprieve in hopes that restoration can be done, Clement said.

“There are some, unfortunately, that need to go because they were not well maintained,” he said.

Two shotgun houses on Main Street, purchased by the We Care Community Center, for example, will be coming down soon to make way for new housing in the area. Edwin Mitchell of We Care said they are not occupied and will be replaced with a two-story building with four apartments.

“We plan to replace them with a structure that matches the genera of the community,” Mitchell said.

While those homes are beyond saving, city officials are starting a new program on the city’s cable TV channel to promote redevelopment of some older homes.

The city will feature historic structures including shotgun houses on the television station that are on the list to be demolished in the hopes of putting interested developers together with property owners. Officials have also talked about creating a district for shotgun homes.

Clement said that the houses can make good first-time homes or houses for young couples.

“It’s a nice alternative to apartments,” Clement said.

Shotgun houses are typically about 800 to 900 square feet and, once fully restored, can sell for about $60,000.