The Santa Monica shotgun house is all that’s left of a vanished way of life

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Houses like the Santa Monica shotgun house were once as common as seagulls at the beach. They were tiny board-and-batten cottages along the strand where, late in the 19th century, families spent a weekend or a week or a season away from the stifling heat of Pasadena or Downtown Los Angeles.

By 2000, there was only one preserved shotgun house left near the beach, at 2712 Second Street. It was in the process of being torn down when preservationists and the city of Santa Monica stepped in, stopped the demolition and relocated it, first to the airport, then to a city storage yard, then to a more permanent site a couple of blocks away from its original location on Second Street.

Now the Santa Monica shotgun house will receive a 2017 Preservation Award from the Los Angeles Conservancy on May 3 to recognize its historical significance. The house—which is now the Preservation Resource Center of the Santa Monica Conservancy—is the last structure of its kind locally, representing a way of life that has disappeared.

 Patrick Lee

Its preservation is an example of the way a community can pull together to save important structures before they vanish from Southern California completely, erasing our connection to the past.

“This is just an incredible story of perseverance and a community group coming together to save the house that was just threatened, and it wasn’t just threatened once, but multiple times in its recent history,” said Adrian Scott Fine, the LA Conservancy’s director of advocacy.

Shotgun houses were a Southern California version of the small houses that popped up in the South, such as those in New Orleans, where they remain ubiquitous. (Some historians believe they are called “shotgun” houses based on the African Yoruba word for house: “togun.”)

They were called shotgun houses, some think, because of their arrangement: Three or four rooms in a row, front to back, with doors between them aligned so that you could fire a shotgun through the front door and hit nothing all the way back.

They had ample windows to let the light in, but little else: no electricity, no gas, no plumbing, not even interior walls in many cases. But they had charm: Queen Anne-style diamond-shaped shingles on the front of a gabled roof, a cozy covered porch with a bit of Victorian-era scroll work.

By the 1890s, there were hundreds of these 400-square-foot houses at the beach, connected by a boardwalk, about a mile south of the 2,000-person village of Santa Monica, within walking distance of the Santa Fe railroad depot in Ocean Park, surrounded by nothing by sun and sand and open space.

Then things changed. People wanted larger, more permanent homes on the increasingly valuable beach property. Some of the shotgun houses were torn down. Some were picked up and moved a couple of blocks inland; they had no foundations anyway.

The town expanded. More shotgun houses were razed. People who still had them fixed them up: Added interior walls, kitchens and bathrooms, electrical wiring, plumbing. They expanded them with more rooms. The shotgun houses became unrecognizable.

The Shotgun House at 2712 Second Street in 2000.
Tom Zimmerman via Santa Monica Conservancy

By the 21st century, the Santa Monica house was all that was left. It was painstakingly preserved and restored as far as possible and now stands as an example of a lost way of life, said architect Mario Fonda-Bonardi, a board member of the Santa Monica Conservancy.

“They’re in with, like, log cabins, sod houses, and adobes,” Fonda-Bonardi told Curbed. “They’re houses built by people, and the big selling point is they’re simple and easy to build, and they all have the same basic floor plan. … Two hundred years ago, they came in through the Caribbean in New Orleans. They worked their way up to Mississippi, up the Ohio Valley, and then they went viral, wherever you needed housing quick, cheap and fast: lumber camps, migrant farm laborer housing, mining camps, Civil War barracks, Boy Scout camps.”

The Santa Monica shotgun house almost didn’t survive, and the community’s efforts over more than a decade—detailed by the LA Conservancy—stand as an example of how historic buildings can be salvaged and repurposed.

“To get to this point now where they have saved it, preserved it, and found a really wonderful reuse for it, that is no small feat,” Fine said. “It’s a small house, but it’s a big undertaking that this group achieved here, and that’s in large part why we really wanted to recognize them and give them the kudos that they deserve.”

Moving the Santa Monica shotgun house in 2014.
via Santa Monica Conservancy

Residents of housing-strapped Southern California can also see in the shotgun house a glimpse of a possible future, the harbinger of the current tiny house movement and a 19th-century example of how people can live simply but well.

“In other places around the country, they are designing and building new shotguns and rehabbing shotguns, because they’re still viable, and it’s not the same issue in terms of the land being so valuable and being the problem in terms of viability,” Fine said.

It’s a national trend: New houses have been shrinking since hitting a size peak in 2007, according to the National Association of Home Builders, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. LA-based KB Homes reported that the average size of houses has fallen nearly 20 percent since then.

  Patrick Lee

“Eventually, all of history repeats itself,” architect Fonda-Bonardi said. “So now we have very small apartments being built all over the city. People are living in 250-square-foot apartments, and this is 400 square feet in the basic plan. So this might be luxurious compared to what you could rent today.”

Why was it important to save the Santa Monica shotgun house?

“You have to understand where you’ve been to understand where you’ve come from and where you might be going,” Fonda-Bonardi said. He added: “No one loves a new building. Everyone loves an old building. A lot of people have had experiences. They’ve lived. They’ve died. They got married. They had babies. People get bonded to old houses. When you erase that, it’s like … cultural Alzheimer’s. We don’t know who we are. We don’t know where we came from.”

The Santa Monica shotgun house/Preservation Resource Center at 2520 Second Street, Santa Monica, is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

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