by Steve Dollar | November 15, 2021

Saving the Historic Shotgun Houses of Apalachicola

A group of preservationists and community members hope to save the tattered shotgun houses, passed down for generations, that define Apalachicola’s Black culture and historic neighborhood

Bernard Simmons outside his home on Avenue L in Apalachicola. Photography by Mark Wallheiser.

Let us now praise the humble shotgun house. 

On a sweltering afternoon in Apalachicola, a man named Creighton Brown guides me onto the porch of one such house. If either of us had a shotgun—which we don’t, by the way—he could pull the trigger and send pellets flying through the open front door clean through the back. Thus the nickname, which handily describes one of the most distinctive forms of Southern vernacular architecture. Brown, a former historic preservation specialist whose superlative handiwork graces Carnegie Hall, the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Bridge, has in recent years turned his attention to these modest wooden cottages. He and his wife Holly, a former TV news producer, moved to Apalachicola nine years ago to make their retirement home. In 2016, they co-founded Save Our Shotguns, a nonprofit volunteer organization that works to restore and preserve the dilapidated houses.

This particular shotgun, one among dozens of the 19th-century structures that still stand in town, is worn down. It’s owned by Brown’s friend and fellow preservation volunteer, Peter Gallant, who uses it for storage. There’s a fix-up somewhere in the future, but the old house still illustrates what makes its construction desirable. The layout ensures cooling airflow in swampy climates, with a strong cross breeze, even if, as superstition has it, a ghost might come along for the ride. The compact home, built from old-growth longleaf pine, expresses a rooted sense of place and purpose. “It’s not a good house to build in upstate New York,” Brown says. “They were designed for here.” 

Shotgun houses on Florida’s Gulf Coast in 1927. Photography courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

An elemental design of the coastal South, the shotgun is the original tiny house, minimalist before minimalism was cool. The homes first proliferated in the early 1800s, most notably in New Orleans—where enslaved Africans and immigrant Haitians constructed the dwellings—as well as in other ports of call along the Gulf of Mexico, from Houston to Mobile to Key West, and across the South. 

No greater Southern icon than Elvis Presley was born in a shotgun house, built by his father, Vernon, in Tupelo, Mississippi, for $180—equivalent to about $3,500 in today’s dollars. 

 In Apalachicola, shotgun houses have been essential to the African-American community for two centuries. Today, they symbolize the hope of maintaining affordable housing for locals and the cultural fabric of a city at risk of trading its history and heart for gentrification.   

The city sits 75 miles south of Tallahassee, where Florida’s Panhandle dips farthest into the Gulf. Its balmy, salt-air charm is instantaneously apparent. With a population of only 2,410 people, Apalachicola emanates a small-town feel, and it prides itself on preserving an array of elegant historic structures; it touts hundreds of 19th-century homes in its historic district, which evokes the antebellum era of Old Florida largely erased by developers and hurricanes. It’s also where you can gaze upon a replica of Dr. John Gorrie’s revolutionary invention of 1851, the ice machine, at the museum and park created in his honor. 

It’s not a good house to build in upstate New York. They were designed for here.
— Creighton Brown

Just as famous is Apalachicola’s uniquely flavorful namesake oyster, harvested from Apalachicola Bay, which once yielded 10 percent of the country’s oyster supply and now provides none. An industry decimated by an ugly confluence of factors, oyster harvesting has been banned in Apalachicola Bay through 2025. Nonetheless, Apalachicola’s weathered docks and oyster bars offer an appropriately brackish backdrop for tourist selfies, and the streets of the postage-stamp downtown are crowded with visitors flip-flopping their way from souvenir emporiums to ice cream parlors to the town’s homegrown Oyster City Brewery, where on a random pre-pandemic afternoon someone might hear a German or French accent amid the drawls and y’alls. That tourism has become the primary driver of the local economy, which has suffered not only from the decline of oystering, but from hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Moldering Bones

The sun sets on Apalachicola. Photography by Mark Wallheiser.

Apalachicola’s seesawing fortunes may have no more apt representation than the city’s dozens of shotgun houses. They dot the streets of the Hill—or the Hillside community—a once-bustling, traditionally African-American neighborhood that covers more than 60 blocks between 12th and Market streets and avenues E and M. Only a few minutes’ walk from downtown’s tropical rainbow of kitsch and quaint, the Hill has a checkerboard feel, with a mix of new, old, renovated and historic construction. What at first appear to be vacant lots overtaken by lush, overgrown thickets of foliage actually harbor the moldering bones of shotgun houses. Elsewhere sit vegetable gardens, churches and clusters of shotgun houses in every sort of condition. Some are well-kept, but many are falling apart; there’s at least one contemporary build based on the classic design. The originals were first built when Apalachicola was a regional timber capital after the Civil War, home to multiple sawmills that shipped lumber out on the Apalachicola River and eventually the railroad. The shotguns housed the Black workers employed by the sawmills and the seafood industry.

With so much of its rich civic lore carefully memorialized and monetized, Apalachicola has successfully branded its past, but the future of its shotgun houses has become a greater concern in recent years. Once common but later disparaged as an undesirable vestige of poverty, shotguns nationwide have been reclaimed both as trendy, historical real estate and as potential locations for urban renewal and affordable housing. In Apalachicola, the homes sit at a sociocultural juncture between the town’s vital African-American history, rising real estate values and an influx of Northern transplants, drawn by the town’s coastal mystique, who are snapping up lots for their retirement homes. 

“I’m just trying to save my own,” says Bernard Simmons, a professional blues guitarist whose heroes include Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, as he sits on the porch of his shotgun house, a property held in his family for decades. As the sun sets, the streets are quiet, save for the occasional golf cart that putters by, a popular mode of local transportation. Simmons’ remodeled shotgun stands out as one of the more inviting homes, with its bright yellow exterior and porch full of plants. Simmons, who grew up in the Hill, remembers a more prosperous time for the neighborhood. “There was a closeness. These families were close. They had to be, living in such small dwellings. People loved each other, they respected each other.”

Don’t build a mansion so big and expensive it’s going to put me in a different tax bracket.
— Bernard Simmons

Simmons, whose front room testifies to his musical endeavors with a drum kit and various guitars, says he doesn’t mind change, as long as it’s in concert with the surroundings. “Don’t build a mansion so big and expensive it’s going to put me in a different tax bracket.”

Valentina Webb, a former Apalachicola city commissioner and chairwoman of the Apalachicola Center for History, Culture and Art, draws an important distinction. “We had no choice but to live in those homes,” Webb says. “They had no choice. They couldn’t afford to live in the big antebellum homes that we have here.”

Under segregation, Black residents had no option but to create an alternate social and economic system, of which the shotgun houses were the backbone.

“The Black community in this town had to become pretty much self-sufficient,” says Willie Tolliver, an Apalachicola native who grew up in the Hill in the 1950s before making a career out of politics and academia and retiring from a professorship at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in New York City. “When I was growing up here, there was strong commerce.” Tolliver, who moved back into his childhood home last year, recalls a district with a general store, a mortuary, a cleaner’s, a grocer who also sold gasoline and Black taxi drivers navigating streets of sand, “because we had no cars.” The city neglected the Hill, Tolliver remembers. “Notwithstanding the fact that people paid taxes. I don’t remember having but maybe one or two paved streets when I was a child here.”

Bernard Simmons, center, talks with Creighton and Holly Brown in front of four shotgun houses in various stages of being refurbished on Eighth Street in Apalachicola. Photography by Mark Wallheiser.

That did nothing to stall the nightlife. “Lots of juke joints,” Tolliver continues. “The Blue Goose, Flat Top, the 2 Spot. The 2 Spot wasn’t open when I was a child. It’s just a big building that’s for sale now. It was built by George Demo, who had a liquor store downtown for white people. George himself was Greek. That’s interesting, too. In this town, there were white people, Greeks, Italians and Blacks. That was the population. The Greeks and Italians weren’t quite white yet.” 

Separate But Not Equal

Segregation meant separate seating for whites and “colored” patrons at the Dixie Theatre downtown, racially distinct sections of the hospital and separate educational opportunities. Tolliver attended the Holy Family Mission School, a Catholic school for Black children founded by an order of Black nuns from New Orleans. The Spanish-style building sits at 203 Dr. Frederick S. Humphries St., a street renamed for one of its best-known graduates, the former Florida A&M University president who died in June. “It was affirming, growing up in a space where my teachers looked like me,” Tolliver says, “and they actually expected a lot of me.”

The school opened in 1929 after nine years of construction and closed in 1964. Since 2012, the historic site has found new purpose as a senior center, another reflection of changing demographics in a town beloved of retirees, where so much of the past is always present. 

The Holy Family Mission School, historically a Black school, now serves the neighborhood’s elderly. Photography by Mark Wallheiser.

“A town like Apalachicola is not going to be a tech hub, thank God. What it’s got is cultural heritage tourism,” says John Marshall, whose father was the late Apalachicola architect and historic preservationist Willoughby Marshall. The younger Marshall is a law professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He did revitalization work in New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “Certainly, on the Hill, the town could and should support redevelopment of more [historic properties] as affordable housing. When you’re looking for the future, you need to look at what the past has given us.”

Save Our Shotguns has promoted the shotguns as one solution to affordable housing needs. The group has held a pair of symposiums with housing, planning and architectural experts; hosts video testimonials on its website; and puts considerable effort into plans to train residents in restoration and construction skills as well as credit improvement. Those plans ran into a number of issues. Although properties on the Hill were passed down from one generation to the next, deeds were not always updated, inviting a host of complications with bank loans and insurance.

“I know people see homelessness as people living on the street, but homelessness is living in a home in the grandmother’s name,” says former Commissioner Webb.

Where multiple historic shotguns share a single 60- by 100-foot lot, it was suggested that owners could rent out the other houses to offset their own mortgages. But modern zoning laws don’t allow that when a house has been vacant for more than six months.

When you’re looking for the future, you need to look at what the past has given us.
— John Marshall

“They’re so easy to build, you know. It’s obviously not a center-hall colonial,” says Creighton Brown. “When they wanted to have affordable housing, this is what they built.” Brown and his friends proved the point by constructing a new two-bedroom shotgun house based on an original structure that had been torn down, repurposing its wooden columns for the decorative front porch. The 2017 house, valued at $178,000, was sold for $125,000 to the winner of a lottery who met residency, income (under $50,000) and mortgage pre-qualification requirements: a white employee of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Now they’re selling houses like that for $300,000,” says Creighton Brown. 

For now, the group is doing what it can, where it can, repairing and replacing roofs for shotgun residents at no cost. Plans to save a row of shotguns on Eighth Street in the Hill were thwarted by red tape. “They want each resident to have a full-sized lot,” Brown explains, “but that rule wasn’t in place when people built their houses. We’re trying to stick a new zoning rule into a neighborhood that wasn’t built that way.” The lot and structures have been sold and are due for renovation. However, the rents will likely be set at market rate. “We gave it a valiant effort,” says Holly Brown. “It was just such a battle.”

A Future Up For Grabs

Inside one of the old, dilapidated shotgun houses on Avenue L in Apalachicola. Photography by Mark Wallheiser.

On the site of a former high school, construction is underway on Denton Cove, a 52-unit multifamily housing development for low-income residents, after years of legal tussles. The controversial project goes against the practice of scattered-site housing, in which low-income properties are dispersed throughout neighborhoods, an approach preferred by affordable housing advocates like the Browns and others. 

“What’s nice about the shotguns in Apalachicola is they exist and they present an opportunity to do something that is very difficult to do nowadays if you were to start from square one,” says Carey Shea, a retired community development professional and activist who formerly ran Home by Hand, an affordable housing nonprofit in New Orleans. 

“We should not have all micro-units or tiny homes, but I believe the point they have made is that there are people for whom this is a really good option, and it’s a very affordable option,” Marshall says, “and even better it’s part of the fabric of the history of the town.”

Can the shotgun houses play as important a role in Apalachicola’s future as they have in its past? The answer is up for grabs. 

There’s a strong feeling on the Hill of many people that want to preserve it as an African-American neighborhood. It’s strong, but it needs help. It needs financial encouragement to make that happen.
— Creighton Brown

“If people are going to come in and buy lots and build more expensive houses, then make sure that the people who are here can still afford to be here and that they’re encouraged to be here, instead of pushing everybody out and taking it over,” says Creighton Brown. It’s a summer afternoon, and he’s manning a table at a small downtown farmers market in front of Bee Inspired Too, a boutique that sells organic handmade products. Tourists drift by or pause. A retirement-age couple. A group of collegiate women.They check out the homegrown vegetables from the Browns’ garden and Holly’s bread loaves. “There’s a strong feeling on the Hill of many people that want to preserve it as an African-American neighborhood. It’s strong, but it needs help. It needs financial encouragement to make that happen,” Creighton Brown says.

Brenda Ash, a former city commissioner who became Apalachicola’s new mayor in June after the sudden death of her predecessor Kevin Begos, also stresses the need for preservation. “We have the retirees, we are blessed that they’ve chosen the charm of Apalachicola,” she says. “But on the flipside, the gentrification that is going on in the Hillside community is sad, because if we don’t already own property, then that generational wealth is lost.” Ash, who grew up on the Hill, raised children as a single mother and sent them to college, would like to see an affordable housing plan that also keeps the workforce in mind. “Those working-class individuals that make too much to be low-income and not enough to be middle-class, or, at that top level, to be able to afford a house … they just fall through the gaps. Until we find that solution, we’re going to continue to struggle.”

Valentina Webb oversees elder care services at the Holy Family Senior Center. Photography by Mark Wallheiser.

This summer, Webb proposed that Apalachicola’s city council look into dedicating a parcel of land in the town’s Sylvester Williams Park, named after her uncle, for new and contemporary affordable housing. The shotgun houses, she says, “are beautiful and precious being restored” but not a good fit for a large family, and many are so damaged that restoration is more a labor of love than a practical endeavor. “You’re really working with a shell on some of them.”

Webb’s idea was met with encouragement. The town’s Community Redevelopment Agency is considering a proposal to direct $150,000 in funds toward upgrades to the park. As reported in the Franklin County News, some $145,000 was approved for improvements at sites in the Hill.

Back in the living room of the home he grew up in, Tolliver can remember when his mother cooked meals on a wood-burning stove, using wood scraps she bought from a man who gathered them from the sawmills. She worked as a maid earning $3 a day. Tolliver’s father worked for the Sheip Lumber Company, until it closed in the late 1940s, and later the St. Joe Paper Company. As I look around, noting photographs on the walls, and listen as Tolliver describes his family’s journey out of enslavement and his own professional achievements, the context is framed for what local families face in Apalachicola today. It’s difficult for a working person to find a house they can afford. There’s a job open for a new librarian, for instance, that offers between $37,000 and $45,000 a year. “You can’t buy a house here today with that salary,” he says. 

Having come full circle, Tolliver suggests a people-powered approach to finding solutions. “Let’s take a food truck, go around and do what they do in New York where they have a street party and have people sit on their porches and talk,” he says. “Show them some ideas … and let them tell us what they want to fix and how to get it done.”