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This article is a part of a series from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s excellent field guide on the architectural styles found in Pennsylvania.  In it, they’ve assigned key periods of development – from the Colonial period in the 18th Century to the Modern Movements of the 29th Century.  This article focuses on an overview of the Traditional/Vernacular style in Pennsylvania from 1638 through 1950.


Traditional/Vernacular Mode 1638 – 1950

Buildings constructed in the Traditional/Vernacular mode fall into this broad category due to the cultural origins of their design, rather than their period of construction.  While buildings within this tradition were built in great abundance in the early European settlement days of our state, the forms continued to be used and replicated with some frequency until roughly the turn of the twentieth century.  Some traditional forms such as meetinghouses and one room school houses continue to built today, especially within certain religious sects.

Traditional/Vernacular buildings derive their form and design from a commonly shared tradition of construction. Buildings that fit into this category are not architect or pattern book designs where appearance is dictated by contemporary stylistic trends. Rather, buildings of this type reflect the ethnic or regional heritage and cultural traditions of their builders.

Traditional/Vernacular buildings are often direct links to the building practices of the European medieval past, employing the basic construction techniques of that era. They were often strictly utilitarian structures, built from affordable and readily available materials to satisfy basic and immediate needs.  A Traditional/Vernacular form may also be chosen for cultural reasons, not because it is the only available design option, but out of respect for past tradition. Certainly, buildings of this type were intended for both short term and long term use. For many reasons, economic, cultural, and environmental, these basic vernacular buildings continued to be built far beyond the settlement period for Pennsylvania.

The Traditional/Vernacular category is a rather broad umbrella, covering a wide variety of building forms based on common cultural past designs. Floor plans and site orientation can be important elements in identifying vernacular design, since simple vernacular forms were often later enhanced by high style architectural details. The distinctive building types commonly seen in Pennsylvania include: log buildings, post-medieval English inspired buildings, Pennsylvania German traditional buildings, meetinghouses, schools  and agricultural outbuildings.

The architectural description “vernacular style” is often used to describe all non-architect designed buildings, or hybrids displaying bits and pieces of various styles. This term is used to describe workaday urban housing forms like row houses and duplexes and also utilitarian single family dwellings lacking any particular stylistic elements. It is also used to refer to barns, summer kitchens, springhouses, smokehouses, and other agricultural outbuildings. In truth, vernacular buildings include a wide array of structures across a long span of time. They are an important part of our state’s architecture heritage; they tell the story of most Pennsylvanians – the “common folk” of our state. For that reason these types of buildings are sometimes referred to as “folk architecture” as well.


Lancaster’s rich history and diverse architectural styles are a virtual feast for the eyes.  Have you experienced them lately?  Now that the weather is turning, we are all looking forward to spending more time outside.  These walking tours from the City of Lancaster’s website are the perfect way to do so.


A Walk Around Downtown Lancaster
(covering three centuries in four blocks)

Lancaster City is an architectural gem. Stroll down any street, in any direction, and you will encounter remarkable, and remarkably intact, historic buildings. Throughout the City, history comes alive through an intermingling of different architectural styles and periods. Each building has its own distinctive characteristics, which together form a varied and colorful mosaic.

The following walk takes in four blocks near Lancaster’s Penn Square, which will transport tour participants through three centuries of Lancaster’s civic, commercial, religious, social and architectural history. Despite that dizzying time travel, this leisurely walk can be accomplished in less than an hour. (You may want to spend much longer than an hour, however. Every street contains many delightful and charming details, so it’s a good idea to stop often to look up at rooflines, look down at cellar windows, and peek through alleyways in order to fully appreciate the quirks and beauty of the architecture.)

[Sites on this tour that are open to the public have been noted. Otherwise, the buildings are private residences or offices and should be respected as such, but the exteriors can be viewed and admired.]

To guide your walk, download a Tour Map and a Listing of Historic Buildingsfeatured on this tour.

Penn Square
Penn Square is Lancaster’s geographic, commercial and civic hub. From the 1730s until 1853, two different courthouses stood in the center of the square. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument is erected there now, built of granite in 1874 to honor those who fought in the Civil War.

This walking tour begins at the northwest corner of Penn Square, where there are three centuries of history present: an old city hall dating from the eighteenth-century, a nineteenth-century markethouse, and an early twentieth-century skyscraper.

South Queen Street
One block south of Penn Square, along South Queen Street, tour goers will come across buildings with connections to the American Revolution and the abolition of slavery as they view a Georgian townhouse, a Federal mansion, and a complex of buildings linked to the Underground Railroad.

Old Town
The tour continues east along East Vine Street, within an area known as Old Town, one of the City’s earliest areas of development during Colonial times. This neighborhood contains houses dating from the 1700s through the 1900s. In the 1970s, much of this area was slated for “urban renewal,” which would have meant the demolition and loss of these irreplaceable historic resources. Instead, the houses were rehabilitated in one of Lancaster’s earliest historic preservation efforts. Tour highlights in this neighborhood include a converted stone stable, the former home of Lancaster’s premier portrait painter, and a dignified Classical Revival mansion.

East Orange Street
This section of East Orange Street is part of the City’s original Historic District, established in 1967. Along this tree-lined street, tour goers will pass an Italianate villa and a church cemetery established in 1744.

North Queen Street
Downtown Lancaster has been a commercial center for 275 years, and North Queen Street has long been an important retail area. The colonial city owed its early prosperity to its strategic position at a transportation crossroads. Lancaster’s role as a retail center grew rapidly with the Industrial Revolution, which produced more plentiful and cheaper goods and a growing urban population to consume them. Turn-of-the-century technology introduced new building materials and construction methods, and Lancaster’s storefronts exhibited the latest architectural styles.

The tour concludes at the original starting point at Penn Square. There are numerous shops, museums, art galleries, and restaurants along West King, West Grant, North Queen and North Prince Streets. Central Market is open each Tuesday and Friday from 6:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m, and on Saturday from 6:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m.

For information about downtown attractions and businesses, visit: “Lancaster City’s On-Line Guide” at

“Discover Downtown Lancaster” at

Here’s an interesting debate, one that we’ve discussed before when researching Independence Hall preservation.  This time, the debate is hitting a little closer to home.

Gettysburg, specifically.  The Cyclorama Building at Gettysburg, more specifically.

Public domain photo from Wikipedia’s article on the Cyclorama Building.


For those who aren’t familiar, the Gettysburg Cyclorama is a 360-degree painting by French artist Paul Philippoteaux that depicts hallmark moments and battles during the Civil War.  The first version of the painting was completed in 1883, but after being displayed in Chicago it was lost until 1965.  This version was purchased by a group of private investors from North Carolina.

The second version of Philippoteaux’s famous work has had a much safer journey through time.  It spent most of its life safely on display at the Gettysburg National Military Park, where the Cyclorama Building was built in 1962 specifically to house the painting by the National Park Service (NPS) as part of their Mission 66 Program aiming to encourage more visitors to National Park sites.

Until 2005, that is, when the painting was removed from the Cyclorama Building for restoration and repairs.  It was never returned.  NPS instead installed the painting at the Gettysburg Museum and Visitors Center and the Cyclorama Building has sat empty and abandoned ever since – despite the fact that it was identified in 1998 as a building with “exceptional historic and architectural significance” by the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places (the official designated by the National Park Service who is responsible for listing historic properties on the register and determining their eligibility).

Despite those words by the Keeper, the building was not added to the Historic Register in 1998, a decision that has been highly contentious and waged a preservation war between Civil War purists and modern-architecture preservationists ever since.  (To read more about that war, you can spend some time reading the Cyclorama Page at the Mission 66 website, researched and composed by Christine Madrid French as part of her master’s thesis for the University of Virginia, School of Architecture, Department of Architectural History.)

Civil War purists say the building should come down in the interests of preserving an accurate picture of the Civil War at Gettysburg, while modern-architecture preservationists say its a building worthy of preservation for its own architectural and historic significance.

Their war reached a peak in 1999 when NPS decided to tear down the building, prompting the modern-architecture preservationists to take the issue to court yet again.  That particular battle culminated with a victory in 2010 for those trying to preserve the Cyclorama Building when a U.S. District court judge ruled that the NPS “had failed to comply with federal law requiring it to analyze the effect of the Cyclorama Center demolition and come up with alternatives to destroying it”.

Having now lasted three times longer than the Civil War itself, the war may finally be ending.  A court-ordered study instigated by the 2010 ruling found that demolition of the building is the best course of action for the NPS, as was reported in an Associated Press article on the Lancaster-based news station WGAL’s website just today.  You can read the short article here.

This is another preservation war that yet again begs the debate: do we preserve our architecture and its surrounding landscape as it was originally or do we include later preservation efforts and diversity in development around those buildings as evidence of the evolution of our built history?

Does older architectural history automatically trump modern architectural history? Should it? Even when both have been determined to be architecturally significant to our built history?  Should preservation be built only on aesthetics?  If so, whose aesthetics?  Is there no place in architectural preservation for conflicting aesthetics?

I don’t have the answers to those questions, do you?

Comment below and let me know where you stand on this particular debate.



Traditional joinery is a term we’ve all heard as a hallmark of historical millwork.  But what is it and why is it so important in preservation of historic buildings?

What is Traditional Joinery?

Joinery in general is the woodworking technique that joins together two pieces of wood.  What a joint looks like, how strong it is, how long it will last, and other characteristics are all determined by the joining materials and how they are used in the joints.   Traditional joinery techniques use only wood elements, while modern joinery techniques use fasteners, bindings, and/or adhesives.  Sometimes the two techniques are combined to marry wooden elements and joints with modern adhesives.

Traditional joinery uses the following joints:

Butt joint: The end of a piece of wood is butted against another piece of wood. This is the simplest, and weakest, joint in traditional joinery.



Miter joint: Similar to a butt joint, but both pieces have been beveled (usually at a 45 degree angle) before being joined together.




Lap joints: One piece of wood overlaps another.




Box joint (or finger joint): Several lap joints at the ends of two boards; used for the corners of boxes.




Dovetail joint: A form of box joint where the fingers are locked together by diagonal cuts.




Dado joint: A slot is cut across the grain in one piece for another piece to set into; shelves on a bookshelf having slots cut into the sides of the shelf, for example.


Groove joint: The slot is cut with the grain.



Tongue and groove: Each piece has a groove cut all along one edge, and a thin, deep ridge (the tongue) on the opposite edge. If the tongue is unattached, it is considered a spline joint.


Mortise and tenon: A stub (the tenon) will fit tightly into a hole cut for it (the mortise). This is a hallmark of Mission Style furniture, and also the traditional method of jointing frame and panel members in doors, windows, and cabinets.


Birdsmouth joint: A V-shaped cut in the rafter connecting roof rafters to the wall-plate.



Comb Joint: A joint used as a way of conserving timber, as a means of joining random lengths of timber to be machined to a finished piece.




Source for pictures and joint descriptions: Wikipedia’s Entry on Traditional Woodworking Joints 


Why it’s Important in Preservation

There are many advantages to using traditional joinery in the preservation or restoration of a historic building.  Using traditional joinery in repairs, restorations, and other preservation ensures the structural integrity of a historic building by matching existing joinery with a joinery technique that’s sure to be compatible with it.  Since traditional joinery is stronger, more durable, and expands and contracts in different ways than modern joinery – using modern joinery alongside traditional joinery can compromise the structure of a historic building.

Traditional joinery is a time-tested method that is much stronger than modern joinery and lasts for generations, even thousands of years.   The mortise and tenon joint is the most ancient traditional joint and has been found in the wooden planks of a vessel 43.6 meters long that dates to 2,500 BCE.  Traditional Chinese architecture as old as Chinese civilization itself used this method for a perfect fit without using fasteners and glues.  The 30 stones of Stonehenge were also fashioned with mortise and tenon joints before they were erected between 2600 and 2400 BCE.

Proving itself to be able to stand the test of thousands of years, traditional joinery is clearly a higher quality and more stable joinery method than modern techniques.  That test of thousands of years also demonstrates traditional joinery’s ability to withstand the rigorous use we often demand of our structures joints because it is a higher quality, more stable joinery method than modern techniques.

One of the reasons traditional joinery like mortise and tenon joints withstands the test of time so well is that it allows a joint to naturally expand and contract with moisture and temperature changes in the environment without devastating separation that weakens the joint and causes (often irreparable) damage to the wood pieces it’s joining together.

But most importantly, traditional joinery ensures authenticity in the preservation of our built history by more completely matching the existing materials and construction methods used by traditional trades.  Since the traditional trade methods that originally constructed a building (along with regional variances in those methods) are a large contributor to a building’s historic fabric, this is the best way to make sure that historic fabric is not lost to our preservation efforts.  Traditional joinery also better allows for selective repair or reconstruction of individual components than modern joinery methods – a major advantage that helps preservationists retain more of the woodwork original to a historic building.




We’ve added Big Spring Farm to our Hidden Gem list for a good reason.  With no website, no official or regular hours, no main contact information, no obvious advertisements, and yet huge preservation efforts and achievements – Big Spring Farm may very well be our most hidden gem of all.

Somewhere around 5am Saturday morning, I was woken up by the loud, shrill sound of a steam whistle.  Momentarily confused (since I live nowhere near a railroad where steam engines run much at at all, yet alone at 5am), I wondered if I was dreaming.


Then I remembered – today was the thresher’s reunion at the Swiss Pioneer Preservation Association’s Big Spring Farm, just a few miles from my door.  Apparently, threshers start their work early in the morning.  (Actually, later in the day I learned that the steam engine had to start traveling to Big Spring Farm that early because it took three hours to take it that short distance.  Yes, it really does drive slower than one could walk.)

The Swiss Pioneer Preservation Association (SPPA) was founded in the 1970’s as an organization dedicated to preserving the early pioneering experience of Swiss immigrants in the U.S.  Their initial project was the re-construction and restoration of log cabin home from the 1700’s.  Spending nearly 30 years to raise funds and find the right location, their dedication to their mission is obvious and the results of their work is stunning – they have reconstructed the log cabin to a full-functioning cabin that exists as it did when it was built in the 1700’s.  Including a working squirrel-tail bake oven they use to bake bread as a demonstration at their events.

Big Spring Farm was willed to the Association by founding member Paul Martin before he passed away.  He wanted the farm to not only be a location for the cabin, but also a preserved working farm operating as it always has over hundreds of years.  SPPA maintains is as a family home and farm, as well as their museum and location of their preservation projects.  The log cabin was their initial preservation project, but the SPPA also restored an original stone springhouse on the farm and recreated a stone root cellar after finding the foundation of one while restoring the springhouse.

The Shirktown Thresher’s reunion has been occurring annually for over ten years now, though it was originally held at a farm near Churchtown, PA, moving to Big Spring Farm only a few years ago.  The reunion is a gathering of not just historic tractors, engines, and other farm implements – but also a demonstration of the evolution of threshing over the course of American History.  There were several threshing machines operating at the reunion to show how wheat berries have historically been separated from the straw stalks, including two different horse-powered threshers.

One was even powered by a horse on a treadmill.  I kid you not.  The horse’s walking turns the belt, which in turn powers the gears on the machine.



The other threshing machines there:




The log cabin rebuilt and restored by SPPA sits on the lawn of the farm, not far from the large stone farmhouse.  It’s a tiny two-room cabin, with a full basement and an open attic that would have been used for sleeping space.  Several Martin generations inhabited the cabin and sometimes over ten people lived in the cabin.  That is mind-boggling to me.  I don’t own a large McMansion, but even still the entire living space of the cabin would easily fit in my living room and kitchen.  And there are days (usually the rainy, too cold, or too hot ones that keep us from spreading out into the fields and forest that surround our house) when I pretty sure the six people in our family are way too many for our house.






DSC08123.JPG DSC08129.JPG DSC08132.JPG DSC08134.JPG


DSC08138.JPG DSC08116.JPG



 The springhouse and root cellar:




Other features of the farm:



Activities and demonstrations at the farm during events:





Do you know the architectural styles of Pennsylvania?

Jim Thorpe Pennsylvania 12    Jim Thorpe Pennsylvania 16   Brandwine Building      Early Architecture - 1 1-2 Story House   braddock 9215   Bottling house

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has an excellent field guide on the architectural styles found in Pennsylvania.  In it, they’ve assigned key periods of development (listed below) – from the Colonial period in the 18th Century to the Modern Movements of the 29th Century.

To further explore Pennsylvania’s architecture and learn more about the periods, styles, and features of our built history, we’ll be posting a series of articles that delve into the field guide produced by the PHMC – so be sure to stay tuned.  (And you may want to subscribe to our blog by email to be notified via email when we post an article.  You can do so in the sidebar on the right.)

We’re starting our series with a timeline of the major architectural periods, and the styles found within them, Pennsylvania.  Click on an architectural period to see a dropdown list of the styles found in it.

[sws_pullquote_right]IMPORTANT NOTE:
It might be hard to believe, but historians sometimes disagree about things. The PHMC’s field guide states:

“It is important to remember that while some styles are universally recognized, scholars and architectural historians sometimes disagree on the categorization and naming of styles and different books consulted on the topic may offer varying names and periods of popularity. Growing research in the field also has provided better understanding of traditional and vernacular building traditions and greater discussion of some previously overlooked areas. So, while there is a basic language and perception of established architectural styles, it is an evolving understanding and sometimes there is no clearly correct answer.”



[sws_toggle1 title=” 1638-1950 Traditional “]1638-1880 Log Buildings

1682-1730 Postmedieval English

1700-1870 Pennsylvania German Traditional

1700-1930 Barns and Outbuildings

1695-1950 Meetinghouses [/sws_toggle1]

[sws_toggle1 title=”1640-1800 Colonial Period”]1700-1800 Georgian Style [/sws_toggle1]

[sws_toggle1 title=”1780-1830 Early Republic Period”]1780-1820 Federal Style

Early Classic Revival Style:
1790-1830 Roman Classical Revival Style
1820-1860 Greek Revival Style[/sws_toggle1]

[sws_toggle1 title=”1830-1860 Mid 19th Century Period”] 1830-1860 Gothic Revival Style

1830-1850 Exotic Revival/Egyptian Revival Style

1840-1885 Italianate Village/Italianate Style

1850-1870 Octagonal Style[/sws_toggle1]

[sws_toggle1 title=”1850-1910 Late Victorian Period”]1840-1900 Romanesque Revival Style

1860-1900 Second Empire/Mansard Style

1860-1890 High Victorian Gothic Style

1860-1910 Chateauesque Style

1860-1890 Stick Style

1880-1900 Queen Anne Style[/sws_toggle1]

[sws_toggle1 title=”1880-1940 Late 19th & Early 20th Century Revival”]1880-1960 Colonial Revival Style

1890-1940 Tudor Revival Style

1890-1940 Collegiate Gothic Style

1890-1935 Italianate Renaissance Revival Style

1895-1950 Classical Revival Style

1885-1930 Beaux Arts Classicism Style

1915-1940 Spanish Colonial Revival Style[/sws_toggle1]

[sws_toggle1 title=”1925-1950 Modern Movement Period”]1920-1930 Exotic Revival/Egyptian Revival Style

1925-1940 Art Deco Style

1930-1950 Moderne Style

1930-1950 International Style[/sws_toggle1]


Protect Historic Masonry Buildings from Permanent Damage Caused by Portland Mortar

Historic masonry buildings are very different from modern buildings.  Historic bricks were fired at lower temperatures and are much softer and more permeable than modern bricks.  Historic buildings constructed with these softer bricks were designed to absorb moisture and then release it.  A key component of this design was the lime mortar historically used in masonry applications, a mortar that was also soft and readily allowed moisture to pass through.

In the late 1800’s, a new mortar debuted in the U.S. at the height of the Industrial Revolution.  Favored for all the qualities a mass-production revolution could ask for (fast-curing, inexpensive, and less work for masons), Portland quickly gained popularity with masons and by the early 1900’s most buildings had some Portland mortar in their masonry surfaces – usually as an additive to traditional lime mortar.  By the mid-1900’s Portland was no longer used as an additive and became the predominant ingredient in mortar mixes. Historic buildings were not immune to the new technology and masonry repairs on historic buildings in the 1900’s were predominantly made with Portland mortar.

If your historic building has been re-pointed in the last sixty years, it very likely was re-pointed with a Portland cement mortar mix.

A common mistake, Portland mortar applied to historic buildings doesn’t just erode the historic fabric of the building, it causes physical damage that is often permanent.  Traditional mortars worked with the softer historic masonry materials to expand and contract together as temperatures and moisture levels changed, creating a wall and masonry surface that “breathed” to expel excess moisture.  Applying a Portland mortar mix to a historic masonry surface disrupts that relationship and traps moisture in the wall and historic bricks.

Moisture trapped within walls will not easily pass through Portland cement mortar and will be forced through the soft brick instead, a path of much less resistance.  When the water evaporates, salt deposits are left behind that crystallize that destroys the protective shell of the bricks.  Once this outer surface is damaged, the softer insides of historic bricks rapidly disintegrate.

Moisture issues caused by Portland mortar on a historic building can begin to destroy historic masonry within just a few years.

The historic bricks on masonry buildings are not the only things threatened by Portland cement mortar – structural elements, interior features, and occupant health are also compromised by the moisture issues associated with Portland mortar.  Remember, historic

masonry materials and mortars were designed from a construction approach that created buildings that “breathed”, allowing moisture both in and out.  Modern masonry materials and mortars are designed from a watertight construction approach that aims to keep water from passing through.

Combining a material from the system designed to let a house “breathe” with a material from the system designed to prevent water from passing through is a recipe for disaster.

Historic mortar differs significantly at a molecular level from modern mortar.  This difference makes modern mortar incompatible with historic masonry materials, permanently damages historic masonry materials and structural elements of masonry buildings, and traps moisture in walls lowering energy efficiency and endangering air quality inside the building.

Here’s a tool you can use to evaluate your historic building’s masonry for potential problems and problem indicators. For a printer-friendly version of this checklist, click on the picture.


Sometimes preservation takes you on new, surprising paths…

Yes, we have kitchens on the brain thanks to a recent custom kitchen project (that turned out to be good fodder for some really cool pictures of our millwork process, so you get to ogle them).

The traditional approach to creating a custom kitchen is one we are all familiar with – create new cabinet frames from scratch in a millwork shop, face them with the customer’s choice in doors and styling, and remove and throw away the existing cabinets (doors, drawers, frames, and all) to install the new cabinetry.

But traditional is not the approach Richard and Dasa Redmond wanted to take.

They proposed a custom refacing and remodeling project for the kitchen in their home in Colonial Era Old Town, Lancaster, PA that would replace only the doors on their cabinetry and rework some of the existing cabinet frames without replacing it – a first for us.

So how did it happen?

Our project began the way they always do – with measurements and an evaluation of whether or not what the customer wanted was possible.  As it turns out it was, and we headed into the design phase.  Using a picture the Redmonds provided, Chuck designed a formal, raised-panel inset cabinet design to replace the informal overlay design in their existing cabinetry.

After designing the cabinetry, we held “Show & Tell” for the Redmonds where mockups provided them the opportunity to explore color options, joinery methods, hardware choices, and other decisions.  After final decisions, the cabinet faces, doors, and drawers were constructed in our custom millwork shop.  When they were ready, we removed the existing doors, drawers, and faces and installed the Redmonds’ new kitchen.

But this project wasn’t just about looks…

Small kitchens in historic homes are often awkwardly laid out and less than ideally situated, a definite problem in a culture who’s kitchens are meant to house much more in the way of cooking implements than your typical Colonial household.  Working extensively with Richard and Dasa, we were able to thoroughly evaluate exactly how each area, cabinet, and drawer in the kitchen was used in order to redesign the cabinetry for an optimal layout.  The result was the addition of a surprising amount of space.

Custom kitchen in less than two months…

…complimentary design for their Colonial home optimized for modern function

Constructed by artisan craftsmen from a locally owned and operated business…

…minimal eco-impact eliminated unnecessary waste and protected existing energy investment

Minimal invasion and disruption, with a fully functioning kitchen throughout the project…


Richard and Dasa may have started a trend worth setting.




This post is by our Guest Blogger House Crazy Sarah.  It was originally posted on her website,  She’s writing about Shotgun Houses – an architectural style most commonly found in the Southern states, but she does reference a few examples found North of the Mason Dixon line.  I searched a bit for examples here in Pennsylvania and didn’t find any, though they must be out there.  If any of you know of any, we’d love to hear about them!

image from: – creative commons


You’ve heard of these long narrow domiciles before… the name conjures up images of an angry dad chasing his daughter’s young suitor with a shot-gun and shooting through the house clear from the front door and out the back door.

Although… I might be confusing shotgun houses with shotgun marriages.

image from: – from: Infrogmation of New Orleans


A shot gun house is characterised by it’s long rectangular shape and by being located on a tiny, narrow lot in close proximity to other houses. Shot gun houses typically feature one room arranged behind the other with no central, or side hallway. You just walk through one room to get to the other – doorways in a row from front entry to back door, enabling a gun shot from the front door to go clear through the house without touching any walls. Hence the shotgun reference.

 Evidence suggests that this name is actually a corruption of the word “shogon.” In West Africa, “shogon” means “God’s House.”

– from:

Oh, oops.

image from: – Infrogmation


Typically, shotgun houses are a maximum of 12 feet (3.5 meters) wide. That’s teeny.


image from:


image from: – Infrogmation of New Orleans


Shot gun houses are thought to have originated in West Africa and the concept migrated to Haiti and then New Orleans with the movement of enslaved African peoples. The small, modest and affordable house style spread throughout the American south and even up into some northern states.

image from: – author: pwbaker


It was the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the American Civil War (1861–65), through the 1920s. Alternate names include “shotgun shack”, “shotgun hut” and “shotgun cottage”.

– from:

image from: – Infrogmation


Shotgun houses are said to be well suited for warmer climates in the American south and in tropical countries because the floor plan enables the breeze to blow right through the house from front to back.

image from: – author: Infrogmation


Most shotgun houses were designed with a small front porch.

The front porch on shotgun houses supported interconnectedness between people and gave neighbors a strong sense of community.

– from:

image from: – photo by: Brian Stansberry


image from: – author: Bruce W. Stracener


There were a few variations of shotgun houses, one being the “camel-back” style – which was basically a two-story addition on the back of the house in order to increase the square footage.

image from: – author: Angry Aspie


Some shotgun houses also had basements with separate entrances, although they were typically above ground due to high water tables in the regions they were common.

image from: – author: Infrogmation


Then there is the “double-barrel” or double shotgun homes…

image from: – author: Infrogmation


A double shotgun house is essentially a duplex with a central wall and mirror floor plans.

image from: – author: Brian Stansberry


Below is a photo of a 1.5 story home In Indiana; a variation of the shotgun house floor plan:

image from:,_Bloomington_West_Side_HD.jpg – author: Nyttend


Though initially as popular with the middle class as with the poor, the shotgun house became a symbol of poverty in the mid-20th century. Opinion is now mixed: some houses are bulldozed due to urban renewal, while others are saved due to historic preservation and/or gentrification.


image from: – author: Infrogmation


Unfortunately, shotgun homes are now largely relics of the past. It seems our modern sensibilities have shifted to include the desire to walk to the bathroom without having to traipse through the bedroom, and the living room, and the kitchen.


For further reading on shotgun houses, see the sources below: