LaVilla Shotgun Houses On Verge Of Being Demolished?

August 2, 2013 127 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Not much is left of Florida's first major urban black neighborhood. Years of urban renewal and haphazard demolition have resulted in a major loss to Jacksonville's cultural heritage and downtown's vibrancy. Now, with an effort to preserve the area's last three shotgun houses drawing opposition from council members, more of LaVilla's history disappear.

At the request of the property owner, the Jacksonville Planning and Development Department began preparing a landmark designation application for the last three shotgun houses standing in downtown at the intersection of Jefferson and Church Streets (formerly 612, 614 & 616 North Lee Street).

Two shotgun duplexes can be seen in this New Orleans streetscape.

These structures exemplify a type of working class housing style that was common in black urban neighborhoods during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The shotgun houses represent the Folk Victorian Style of architecture, which was popular between 1870 and 1910.  This style is defined by the application of Victorian decorative detailing on simple frame structures in an attempt to mimic the popular high Victorian architecture of the era. Many scholars believe shotgun houses reflect African building traditions that entered the American Southeast via the transatlantic slave trade through the Caribbean Islands, starting in New Orleans and brought to cities like Jacksonville by migrating Black freedmen.

Thousands of shotgun houses can been seen in this early 20th century aerial over LaVilla. Today, only three remain and their future is in jeopardy.

Largely destroyed during the 1990s, the downtown neighborhood where the houses stand has a very storied and disrespected history of its own. LaVilla was developed and settled shortly after the Civil War, becoming an incorporated town of its own in 1869. Also the junction of several railroads and the maritime industry, during the 1880s, LaVilla had established an unsavory reputation for gambling, drunkenness, prostitution, and political corruption. This eventually resulted in the Town of LaVilla being annexed by neighboring Jacksonville in 1887. Nevertheless, by the time of the Great Fire of 1901, the place where 41 freedmen located in 1866 had grown to become the commercial center for Jacksonville's African American community and a major spot along the Chitlin Circuit. However, always viewed as a slum by Jacksonville's political leaders, in the last thirty years LaVilla has been purposely destroyed and transformed from an urban black neighborhood into a sea of vacant lots, parking lots, random suburban office buildings and building foundations resulting from haphazard demolition.

Predominately found in the urban South, shotgun houses tended to be narrow across the front in order to maximize the number of units on each residential lot. Running deep on the lot, rooms were typically arranged one behind the other connected by a long hallway. Because this long hall usually ran the entire length of the house, the name derived from the possibility of firing a round from the front door through the back door without hitting any part of the house.

Urban Jacksonville has lost 50% of its residential population since 1950. The loss of shotgun housing districts is a major reason for this decline. Despite an urban landscape being dominated with them a century ago, not many significant shotgun rows remain today.  This isolated row in Durkeeville gives the viewer an impression of what many residential streets in Lavilla once resembled.

During downtown Jacksonville's heyday, urban core neighborhoods within walking distance were dominated with them. The residents they housed were the labor and customer base for many famed restaurants, hotels, retailers, factories and popular destinations that once called downtown home. Over the years, many of these residential properties have been demolished in favor of failed urban renewal projects.  As a result, downtown Jacksonville has been transformed into a shell of its former self as many of the neighborhoods that once supported it, no longer exist.

Sanborn maps indicate the Jefferson Street shotgun houses were constructed between 1903 and 1912. They were originally located at 612, 614, and 616 Lee Street, which was a part of McIntosh & Reed's Addition to LaVilla. Because Jacksonville city directories ignored occupants by address in dominate black neighborhoods in the early 20th century, the first city directory listing for these houses was in 1919.  At the time, 612 Lee was occupied by Columbia H. Boger, a widow; 614 Lee was occupied by Daniel Redmon, a porter, and 616 Lee was occupied by Thomas Taylor, who was identified as a driver.

The Jefferson Street shotgun houses when they were located on Lee Street.

Privately occupied until the City's River City Renaissance Program, which resulted in the removal of LaVilla's residents and its ultimate destruction, these three houses were acquired by the City and relocated to the present site. At the time, the City's intent was to rehabilitate them for educational purposes as an example of a vanishing but popular housing type found in many urban black neighborhoods during the late 19th and early 20th century. However, after a decade of nothing happening, not everyone is exactly in favor of landmarking downtown's last three shotgun houses to ensure their preservation and rehabilitation.  Councilman Don Redman believes that they are eyesores. Furthermore, there's a debate regarding their impact on the value of the city-owned land the stand on, renovation costs and questionings revolving around landmarking now after we've allowed them to sit since 1999.

A rare restored shotgun in Washington, DC. Most were replaced with rowhousing during this city's rapid early 20th century growth.

On Tuesday, August 6, 2013 at 5:00pm, the future fate of these structures could be determined. The Land Use and Zoning (LUZ) Committee of the City Council will be addressing the proposed landmark designation for the shotgun houses (Ordinance # 2013-397). The LUZ meeting will be held in the Council Chambers at City Hall located at 117 West Duval Street.

Without a show for public support at this meeting, it is possible that another direct tie to downtown Jacksonville's African American history could be forever lost and replaced with another vacant lot.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at