Although many grand historic houses have been preserved, few modest frame houses for the middle and working classes survive. An exception is a mid-19th-century shotgun house on the east end of Capitol Hill that has been re-created as part of an unusual condominium project.
“We have a lot of houses that are wonderful, and they’re designed by famous architects, and everybody wants to see them,” said Beth Purcell, chair of the Historic Preservation Committee of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society. “This is sort of the other end of the spectrum. This is real vernacular architecture.”
Shotgun houses are long, narrow structures, one room wide and three to five rooms deep. Many people believe that the term “shotgun house” comes from the idea that a shotgun blast fired from the front door could go through the house and out the back door without hitting a wall.
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Capitol Hill shotgun house | The shotgun house is one of only two houses in this style remaining on Capitol Hill. It is listed at $1.3 million. (Tod Connell)
But the website of the Data Center, a research organization in southeast Louisiana, says the term may be a corruption of the word “shogon.” In West Africa, shogon means “God’s house.” Shotgun houses are widely recognized as an African American contribution to American architectural styles.
The house, one of only two shotgun houses remaining on Capitol Hill, was built circa 1850 by John Biegler, who operated a store on the block. Ernst Tungel, a German-born peddler, bought the house in 1853, and his family lived there for 40 years. When Daniel Hartley, a Maryland-born bricklayer, lived in the house, he added a rear outbuilding in 1917 and a brick kitchen in the 1930s.
Larry Quillian bought the house in 1985, with plans to tear it down. But because the house is in a historic district, he ran into resistance from the Capitol Hill Restoration Society. For years, the CHRS opposed his redevelopment plans. The house remained uninhabited and an eyesore for decades, leading to acrimonious divisions within the neighborhood.
Bethesda-based architect and developer Sassan Gharai acquired the property three years ago. Gharai, who has a passion for unusual and historic houses, worked with the neighbors and the preservationists to devise a solution. They agreed that he would document, dismantle and reconstruct the house three feet west of its original foundation. This allowed him to build a second house next to the shotgun house, connecting both to the houses on either side. Because of the way the two houses are interconnected, they are technically considered condos.
“Demolishing the shotgun [house] . . . is obviously not an ideal preservation outcome,” wrote Steve Callcott in the Historic Preservation Review Board’s staff report. “However, after 30+ years of abandonment, neglect and deterioration, and after several failed attempts at redeveloping the site, the proposal may be the best and last possibility for retaining any aspect of this rare structure.”
After the house was dismantled, Gharai allowed a team of archaeologists to excavate the site. Their findings included a cellar with a number of intact bottles and items related to Germany.
Gharai added two levels to the original house, creating a bedroom and den on the second floor and a master suite on the top level.
“What I love is as you go through it, it reveals itself to you,” Gharai said.
In addition to the bedroom, the master suite includes a Gharai trademark, a second bedroom that he refers to as the “snoring room.” The suite also has a large walk-in closet and dressing area and an expansive bathroom with a soaking tub and steam shower.
The 14-foot ceilings make the living room feel spacious. The kitchen has plenty of storage and an island with seating. There’s a deck on the back, and the two condos share three parking spaces.
“Based on the condition of the house by 2016, this is a good outcome,” Purcell said. “Even though it’s a re-creation, people can see what one of these houses looked like. . . . You really need to make sure that you keep your treasures so that people can see them and appreciate them.”
The three-bedroom, three-bathroom, 2,400-square-foot condo is listed at $1.3 million. An open house is scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.