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How to renovate a 19th-century shotgun home

Five tips from an expert

Photos by Liz Jurey, courtesy of the Preservation Resource Center.

Few houses are as quintessentially New Orleans as a classic shotgun, but their hall-less, closet-less succession of rooms is less than ideal for most 21st-century homeowners. As a result, a cottage industry (get it?) has emerged surrounding shotgun renovations and conversions.

Plenty of renovations miss the mark completely—and plenty of beautiful, antique homes become money pits when contractors unearth termite damage, collapsing lean-tos, or worse.

To figure out the best way to renovate an antique shotgun home, we consulted Celeste Marshall, a photographer-turned-real-estate agent whose circa-1896 shotgun is one of seven on the Preservation Resource Center’s annual home tour from March 23-24.

Here are Marshall’s top tips for preserving a shotgun home’s historic architecture while updating its footprint and amenities.

Marshall’s Eastlake Victorian shotgun double is located near Audubon Park. When she purchased it in 2014, the home was “lipstick pretty” but needed a major overhaul.

Know what you’re getting into

Before starting the renovation process, hire an independent, third-party home inspector to check out the foundation, structure, walls, roof, and mechanical systems. Marshall’s Uptown shotgun double “had never been touched, other than adding electricity at some point”—and fortunately, it was in pristine condition. The inspection let her move forward with an appropriate budget and the knowledge that she wouldn’t find any unwelcome surprises.

Make a budget—and be willing to sacrifice

A contractor’s priority is to make your dream home a reality, Marshall says—cost is secondary. That’s why the onus is on the homeowner when it comes to sticking to a budget.

Marshall had Airbnb-ed one side of her shotgun double for three years to save up for the gut renovation. She made tough decisions in order to keep expenses down.

“We had a fixed budget, and there was no extra,” Marshall said. “In the end, there were big cuts. I didn’t get a new roof right away, and I took off a camelback and a screened-in porch to make it work for the budget.”

In the kitchen, Marshall used a Carrera marble island counter top and a Kohler faucet.

Have a clear vision of what you want

Marshall spent a year planning her renovation and had five contractors bid on the job. That way, she was able to stick to budget and avoid costly change orders.

“It’s important to spend the time beforehand making all the decisions and then sticking to them,” Marshall said. “When you change your mind in the middle of the project, it may seem like it’s not a big deal, but that’s where the overages come from. Have a spreadsheet, and figure out where you want to spend your money.”

For example, Marshall knew she wanted a country-blue kitchen like those she’d admired during frequent trips to England. But she didn’t know how much that custom shade of blue would cost. She ended up splurging on the paint and sacrificing upper cabinets to make up the cost.

“I got creative with open shelving,” she said.

Modernize the footprint with an eye toward your lifestyle

Double shotgun conversions usually go one of two ways. The front rooms are connected to form an open living area, and the bedrooms are placed in the back—or one side becomes a linear configuration of bedrooms, while the other side becomes an open living area. When modernizing a shotgun, it’s important to think not only about the home’s flow, but also your own lifestyle and preferences.

“What I have done floor-plan wise is not for everyone,” Marshall said. “Most people would have opened the entire right side. For families with children, this makes sense because you want to see where they are, and it gives you more space. For me and the way I live, it wasn’t what I wanted for that house.”

A frequent dinner party host, Marshall desired separate entertaining spaces, so she could close the door on a messy kitchen. She and her architect, Jennifer Zurik of Entablature, chose a floor plan that would mostly preserve the home’s original footprint while adding a half-bath, a kitchen pantry, halls, and closets.

“We definitely moved some walls, but we didn’t change the ultimate floor plan,” Marshall said.

The original fireplace serves as a visual barrier, dividing the front area into two areas: a cozy den with a chimney-mounted TV and a more formal sitting room.

“People naturally separate when I entertain,” Marshall said. “They have areas to go to.”

Marshall “fell in love” with the dining room chandelier from Arteriors , planning her budget around it.

Preserve the home’s original elements

Original, antique elements give homes much of their charm and resale value, so keep them whenever possible. A good contractor can find clever ways to do so.

When Marshall’s former bedroom became a hallway, she didn’t think there would be room for the fireplace. But Chris Kornman of Entablature found a way around that.

“They took the top part off and shaved it down, so I have this beautiful fireplace in the hallway,” said Marshall, who also preserved the home’s original floors, molding, transoms, picture railings, floors, trim, woodwork, and door casings.

Once home to two 800-square-foot shotguns, each with three rooms, a kitchen, and a lean-to bathroom in the rear, the renovated dwelling is now a single-family home with two bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms.

But Marshall’s work isn’t done. She has her eye on a second renovation, one that will add that screened-in porch. In the meantime, she’s enjoying the fruits of her labor—and the fact that the work was done on budget, in three months.

“I’m so happy with my house,” Marshall said. “It feels like I got to scratch that artist’s itch that I don’t use as much any more. It was fun to see my vision come together and see people appreciate it.”

Marshall’s home is filled with vivid hues and quirky touches. “I really appreciate color—I couldn’t live in a cookie cutter space,” she said.