A shotgun house is so named, according to lore, because a shotgun blast will pass straight through all the rooms, from the front door to the back. Commonly found in the Deep South, the structure’s roots are traced in some accounts to the west coast of Africa.
To some people, the one-story house at 1229 E. St. SE on Capitol Hill is a classic example of the form. To others, the boarded-up, rectangular shack with the cracked wooden frame is an eyesore worthy of replacement.
This disagreement has led to a tug of war between an owner ready to demolish the place and a preservation group demanding that it be restored.
Bordered on its right and left by two-story rowhouses — brightly painted in pastels with neat wood paneling and railed stairs — the brown shotgun house on E Street seems out of place. The wooden walls look as if chunks have been bitten out of them, and the brick foundation is exposed in front for the world to see.
The house is barely half as tall as its bigger neighbors, and it is just 14 feet wide and three rooms deep. It has a single long window and a door in front. There is no longer a porch for the dilapidated roof to cover.
Though the origins of this particular specimen are unclear, the story goes that the owner of a local store built the house some time before 1853. A German immigrant peddler bought it and lived there with his family for 40 years, according to the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, and the house may have been owned by a bricklayer who occupied it until the 1940s.
The current owner, Larry Quillian, bought the property in 1985. Quillian, a 74-year-old former contractor and developer, thought he could tear down the derelict house and build a bigger one. He quickly discovered, however, that in the Capitol Hill Historic District, it wouldn’t be that easy.
Quillian applied for demolition permit in 2002, but the Historic Preservation Review Board recommended that the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs deny the request. He’s trying again, but with no guarantee of success.
The review board is scheduled to hear his application at the end of the month. The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission has recommended that he be granted a demolition permit, but the Capitol Hill Restoration Society has taken the opposite position.
Society members oppose demolition because of the house’s historical and structural integrity, said Beth Purcell, who chairs the group’s Historic Preservation Committee. She and others contend that the house contributes to our understanding of working-class life in the Capitol Hill neighborhood before the Civil War.
“You just don’t destroy buildings that have their historic integrity,” she said.
Richard Longstreth, director of the historic preservation program at George Washington University, said Quillian’s shotgun house is a rarity on Capitol Hill. There’s only one other shotgun house on Capitol Hill, and it’s no longer an original like Quillian’s.
Longstreth said the shotgun house design is an “African import” that reached the American Gulf Coast by way of the Caribbean, particularly Haiti, and then took hold in the Deep South and along the Mississippi River. He said that it became popular among the working class and that the simple design optimized ventilation, allowing the breeze to pass through every room in one go.
“We don’t know how it immigrated to Washington,” Longstreth said of that type of structure. His best guess is that the builder of Quillian’s shotgun house came from the Deep South or the Ohio River Valley, where he would have become familiar with the design.
About the house’s historical significance, Longstreth said it would be worthwhile to restore and preserve such a rarity on Capitol Hill. But about the financial return on such an investment, he said, “It depends on the cachet of a house like this in Washington.”
Preservationists contend that under the best-case scenario, the shotgun house would be restored but that a complete reconstruction would be acceptable if demolition is necessary.
A recent engineering report Quillian paid for deemed the house structurally unsound and unfit for repair. In addition, Quillian said that fully restoring the house would cost more than tearing it down and building a reproduction. Either option would leave him with a small house that wouldn’t allow him to charge enough rent to break even on a lot worth twice as much as the structure, he said.
The preservationists don’t buy the findings of the engineering report. They want a third-party examination of the house, one not paid for by Quillian, before any major decision is made.
Over the years, Quillian has kept the grass cut, and he boarded up windows after break-ins and other vandalism. But he acknowledged that he performed little additional upkeep. He said that the house was falling apart when he bought it and that it has undergone normal, legally permissible wear and tear in the meantime. If the city determined that he had intentionally let the house go to ruin, he could face a fine.
Quillian also said he offered to give the shotgun house to the restoration society, which could have restored the building and paid him fair-market rent for the use of the lot.
“They want to save the house, shouldn’t they want to do this?” Quillian said.
Purcell, however, said that she recalls no such offer and that the group doesn’t have the funds to buy such a property and restore it.
Quillian said he has little hope that the preservation board will agree to let him demolish the house. At the same time, he said, although he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life dealing with preservation groups,he’s not a quitter.
“The only thing in the world that is better than a good friend is a dedicated enemy,” Quillian said.