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American Vernacular Architecture: The Shotgun Style in Florida

Images above provided by State Archives of FL, FL Memory. Image left by David A. Taylor, Apalachicola, FL. Image right by Dale M. McDonald, Key West, FL.

Some of America’s most interesting forms of architecture have grown out of various vernacular styles, meaning that the concept for the structure originates not from a professionally trained designer, but rather from common citizens. Since the United States is a melting pot of cultures from all over the world, it is fascinating to see how different people blend their structural philosophies into the places they create. Structures can tell us so much about how people think, what they value and how they live. American culture is such a melting pot, in fact, that the origins of certain architectural styles can be forgotten leaving architectural enthusiasts to play the part of the archaeologist as we sift through the visual elements to discern the origins of the vernacular styles. This is the reason that many vernacular styles fascinate me so much, and one style in particular is the Shotgun Style.

 

 

 

 

Image at left by Lesa N. Lorusso, Images center and right provided by State Archives of FL

The Shotgun house is a more modest architectural relative of the New York City brownstone structure and the Charleston single house. Similar to the entry in the the brownstone homes seen in the American Northeast, the entry to the Shotgun Style house is typically on one side of the building’s facade with adjacent windows overlooking the street or thoroughfare (1). Built primarily in the rural southern regions of the United States including Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, the Shotgun style is a one- or one-and-a-half-story house that is commonly supported on short piers, is typically one room wide and several rooms deep, with all rooms and their doors in a straight line perpendicular to the street. These homes are often built with a narrow gable front with a porch, often with a similar porch at the rear (3).

Image from State Archives of FL, FL Memory. Camelback Shotgun home, Tampa, FL. Photographer Dwight DeVane

There are several variations of this style, including the Double-barrel Shotgun, the Camelback, and the Double Width Shotgun. Double-barrel Shotguns are basically duplexes, or two separate Shotgun houses sharing a single, central wall to allow more houses to be built in an area. The Camelback is a Shotgun with a second story built onto the rear of the house. A Double Width Shotgun is a single structure that’s twice the width of a normal Shotgun (5).

Though the Shotgun Style home is a freestanding structure, it typically will have no windows on the sidewalls. These houses are often built so close together that windows would be impractical for light or ventilation and would severely compromise personal privacy (1). This house type is one room wide, one story tall and several rooms deep (usually three or more) and has its primary entrance in the gable end. Seen throughout the American south as well in certain parts of cities in the northeast it is easy to designate this style as an American vernacular born from urban living and the inherent structural constraints from tight slave quarters and stop right there. The truth, however is far more interesting. In fact, the true origins of this style have a rich history that trace back from New Orleans, Louisiana across the Atlantic Ocean to the western region of the African continent.

The shotgun house is believed to be an architectural hybrid that developed in the West Indies and entered the United States via New Orleans in the early 19th century (2). Through research I have found that the Yoruba people of West Africa have a word “shogon” which means “God’s House.” It is possible that the enslaved West Africans brought this term, (which could have later morphed into “shotgun”), their close-knit sense of community and intimate style of dwelling to plantations in the West Indies and eventually to America. Images at left from the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s Image and Multimedia Library. Top Image: Section of home in Fulbe Village, Africa. The Fulbe people are located in western Africa, where many slaves taken to the West Indies and America originated. Lower Image: Fulbe Village house. Notice both images use covered front porches and central entryways seen in the American Shotgun Style.

Long before mechanized air conditioning, homes built in the Shotgun Style take advantage of natural breezes that are circulated through the home via the central corridor or passageway created by opening the front a back door. This identifying feature is often given credit for the styles name since a bullet fired from the front door would travel unobstructed through the home and out the back door (4). Image by Lesa Lorusso

 

Image on left by Lesa Lorusso, Image on right from State Archives of FL, FL Memory

Nestled on 12 acres of old orange groves in Mims, Florida stands an example of the uniquely African American Vernacular style. Located on the property of the Harry T. & Harriette V. Moore Memorial Park & Cultural Center, this home is a replica of the home shared by American Civil Rights leaders Harry and Harriette Moore and serves today as a teaching tool to visitors of the complex. Harry T. Moore was organizer, president and state coordinator of the Florida branch of the NAACP. Moore and his wife Henrietta were educators and champions for racial equality. They were killed in a bombing at their home on Christmas Eve 1951. Although the original structure was destroyed in 1951 when a bomb beneath their bedroom floor destroyed the Moore’s home, a historically accurate replica has been rebuilt and tours are provided by knowledgeable docents.

Images on left and right by Lesa Lorusso

Like so many vernacular styles, Moore Home replica in Mims, FL is a Shotgun Style home with uniquely Floridian features including yellow body color and white trim. The featured front porch is an integral element of the American Shotgun Style and is a visual connection to the West African origins of the style that favors the intimacy of communal living.

Images by Lesa Lorusso

Within the Moore Home replica, visitors will find an interior lovingly furnished with personal items from the Moore family and is accurately equipped according to the time frame that the Moore’s occupied the home.

In addition to the replica of the Moore Family residence, the site also houses a welcome center that contains an interactive timeline of African American history, park grounds, contemplative reflecting pools with a gazebo and beautiful orange trees original to the site. It is a unique and enriching complex run by dedicated docents and knowledgeable staff of the Brevard County department of Parks and Recreation. For more information on Harry and Harriette Moore visit www.brevardparks.com/hthvm. Images by Lesa Lorusso

 

  1. Jim Kemp. American Vernacular: Regional Influence in Architecture and Interior Design. Washington, D.C.: The American Institute of Architects Press, 1990. p86.
  2. John Michael Vlach. “Afro-Americans.” America’s Architectural Roots, Ethnic Groups that Built America. Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1986. p43.
  3. shotgun house. (2006). In Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Retrieved from http://www.credoreference.com/entry/mhbuilding/shotgun_house
  4. Christine Brun.  (2010, August 4). Shotgun House. Creators Syndicate, Retrieved June 13, 2012, from ProQuest Newsstand. (Document ID: 2100865341).
  5. http://www.casasugar.com/Architecture-Styles-Shotgun-House-1017383
  6. http://www.gnocdc.org/tertiary/shotgun.html
  7. www.brevardparks.com/hthvm

 

 

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The Sams House at Pine Island

Photo(s): 1888 Sams Main House (left) & 1878 Cabin (rt), Merritt Island, FL Photo by: Lesa N. Lorusso

Two of Brevard County’s historical gems can be found at the Pine Island Conservation Area in Merritt Island, Florida. The newly restored buildings known as the 1888 Sams family main house and 1878 Sams cabin serve as the Environmentally Endangered Lands (EEL) program’s central region management and education center. The Pine Island Conservation Area encompasses nearly 900 acres in Merritt Island and was acquired by the EEL program in 1996. After an in-depth assessment conducted by the Indian River Anthropological Society, archaeologists discovered a rich history that not only included Brevard County’s pioneering Sams family but one that dated back as far as the Ice Age. In fact, in addition to the Sams family who lived on the site continuously from 1878 until the land was purchased by the EEL program in 1996, archaeologists discovered prehistoric fossils and evidence of ancient human habitation.

Photo(s): Ice Age fossils: Vertebrae, Tusk, Tortoise Shell, Jaw Bone, Photo by: Lesa N. Lorusso

The prehistoric aspect of this site dates from the Middle Archaic Period (5,000-3,500BC) through the Malabar I Period (500 BC – AD750) and includes dense scatters of ceramic material, intact stone tools and an interesting array of fossils. Patterns have been found on the site that suggests locations of ancient dwellings and human habitation spanning 800 years. In fact, burial mounds still exist near the Sams homestead and can be viewed today. Ice Age fossils including remains of Mastodon, Giant Land Tortoise, Glyptodont, Mammoth and Tapir were unearthed when wetlands were dredged by developers prior to EEL acquisition of the property and can be viewed by visitors to the center.

Photo(s): 1878 Sams Cabin and museum, Photos by: Lesa N. Lorusso

The education center is housed within two buildings previously owned by the Sams family of Brevard County. John H. Sams was a former Confederate army officer who moved to Florida from South Carolina after the American Civil War. The family originally settled in Eau Gallie, located approximately 25 miles south of the center, to take advantage of the1862 Homestead Act. After a failed attempt at farming in Eau Gallie, the Sams family relocated to the Merritt Island location and brought with them their three room cabin which they floated down the Indian River and reassembled in its present location in 1878. Roman numerals are still evident on the structural parts of the cabin detailing how the family took the cabin apart for a planned reassembly, according to Education Coordinator Katrina Morrell. The windows, external siding, ceiling and flooring are original. The house originally sat on wooden piers and now rests on blocks. The interior bead board paneling is not original to the house but is true to the consistency of the structure.  A separate kitchen was once located behind the cabin as well as an outhouse. The cabin is now air-conditioned and houses an interactive museum detailing the history of the site.


Photo: 1888 Sams Main House, Photo by: Lesa N. Lorusso

The Sams family was successful in their citrus, sugar cane and pineapple enterprises at their Merritt Island location and was able to build the main house in 1888 to better accommodate the family. The main house is a beautiful wooden two-story Florida vernacular structure. The white washed exterior has been restored back to its 1888 existence with an open, wrap-around porch and metal roof. An interesting and unusual detail to note is the double entry doors on the front of the home. The doors lead to the two main rooms downstairs: Mr. Sams’ office on the left and the family room on the right. Mr. Sams’ need for a dedicated office space arose from his agricultural success and his appointment as the first Superintendent of Schools in Brevard County. The family room downstairs houses a rustic fireplace and served as a gathering space for the family. Currently there are three bedrooms upstairs that are used to house volunteer workers and a bathroom.

Photo: Fireplace within 1888 Sams Main House and Restored porch roof detail. Photos by: Lesa N. Lorusso

Source: Katrina Morrell, Education Coordinator, Brevard County Pine Island Management and Education Center/Sams House, 6195 North Tropical Trail Merritt Island, FL 32953 (tour notes and brochure provided by Morrell)

 

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To Restore or Not to Restore


Demolished home on Rockledge Drive, Rockledge, FL. Image by Lesa Lorusso

There is a wide spectrum of philosophies when it comes to historic preservation, which can be seen in countless preservation projects across America. Once a group or community has made the heroic decision to preserve a resource, the question that often arises amongst preservationists is how, exactly, should the building be preserved? Should the building be kept in its original state, allowed to gradually deteriorate or should it be restored to an earlier condition? Should the building be restored to be “better than” it was in its original state with improvements that really should have been done in the first place anyway? Three preservationists embody each of these points of view: Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Paul Leon and John Ruskin.

Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) is known as the first restoration architect, although his methods are now largely discredited. The Frenchman’s philosophy was that buildings should be rebuilt not necessarily as they originally were but as they “should have been.” He stated that “to restore a building is not only to preserve it, to repair it, or to rebuild, but to bring it back to a state of completion such as may never have existed at any given moment.” On the church of la Madeleine de Vezelay in Vezelay, France he installed new statuary and stone not based on the original design at all, but rather of his own. His practice of ignoring historical accuracy and adding architectural elements based on aesthetics is a major reason that his work is not applauded among preservationists today. What remains important, however, is the recognition that Viollet-le-Duc’s work brought to the restoration of historic structures as well as the methods, technology and philosophy he shared in a ten-volume dictionary on architecture.  An American example of Viollet-le-Duc’s philosophy could arguably be seen in the preservation of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia where some restorations and reconstructions have occurred, in some instances, based on scant evidence, lending more to aesthetics than historical fact.

On the other end of the preservation spectrum sit Paul Leon and John Ruskin. Leon criticized Viollet-le-Duc’s methods believing that “a monument to be a testimony to the past must stay as the past bequeathed it.” He believed that pretending to restore a building to its original state is dangerous and deceitful because, while it saved a structure from eventual ruin, it provided an inaccurate record of the past. John Ruskin abhorred Viollet-le-Duc’s methods as well but took a more adamant stance regarding preservation. The 19th century writer and critic argued that a society has no right to improve or even attempt to restore the craftsmanship of another era. In his book The Seven Lamps of Architecture he wrote “it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.” He strongly believed that a building should be built to last and remain untouched. He felt that restoration wiped clean the character of a structure and said, “When we build, let us think that we build for ever.”

Most preservation projects fall somewhere in between the two extremes of the restoration spectrum. Whether to goal is to save an old building from demolition, preserving cultural heritage or foster urban revitalization, often times it is the ultimate goal of the restoration project that mandates where on the spectrum it will fall. If the purpose is to bring tourists to a site and encouraging economic growth in an area, as seen in the restoration of downtown districts like Cocoa Village, Florida, Viollet-le-Duc’s methods of favoring aesthetics over specific historical accuracy may be followed. Likewise, if the historical importance lies in the details surrounding the last person to inhabit a space, as in the Historic Rosseter House in Melbourne, FL it may be left as it was bequeathed.

Source: Historic Preservation: An Introduction to its History, Principles and Practice. Tyler, Norman, Ligibel, Ted, Tyler, Illene. Norton Publishing ISBN: 978-0-393-73273-3