On a downtown block dominated by big construction, a tiny house is turning heads.
Perched on a forest of new concrete piers at 624 S. Seventh St., a “shotgun house” from the 19th century faces off with the 21st-century loft complex being built across the street.
It will soon be home to a Waco native with a quirky affinity for a vanishing form of folk architecture.
Cameron Bell, 29, last month moved the frame house from a few blocks away on South 10th Street, where a developer was about to raze it to make room for a major redevelopment of the neighborhood across Interstate 35 from Baylor University.
Bell said he became intrigued with the long, skinny house on a visit to Waco, noting its similarity to houses he had seen in southern Louisiana. The house appears to date back at least to 1899, according to old city insurance maps, and was part of a mostly black neighborhood that is rapidly vanishing.
Bell contacted a foreman with 11th Street Partners, which is redeveloping the area for restaurants and multifamily housing.
“He said, ‘If you want that house and can get it out of here, more power to you. You can have that house,’ ” Bell said. “They were super nice and super patient. They really did want to see that house moved out of there instead of it being torn down.”
Now Bell is renovating it with new windows and roofing, along with a half-story sleeping loft. He and his wife, Jessie, plan to live in the 700-square-foot house starting next year when they move back to their hometown from Denton.
‘Is it big enough’
“Everybody’s main concern is, ‘Is it big enough to live in?’ ” Bell said. “The funny thing is, our house in Denton is just 690 square feet. We live simply, and on that lot you have room to expand if you want to.”
Bell said he’s excited to move back and live in downtown. But he acknowledges that not everyone shares his vision.
“Everybody told me the same thing,” he said. “‘Why don’t you just build something new and spend the same money building what you want?’ But for me it was more for the posterity, the idea that it had been there so long. All those things appealed to me.”
Bell is untroubled by the rapid redevelopment of the neighborhood, including the new 200-unit, three-story Tinsley Place apartment complex that has replaced a line of frame houses across the street. Behind him is the new Mirada student housing complex, and down the block is the parking lot of a restaurant. Almost every remaining house on the block is either for sale or due for demolition — including another shotgun house.
Roy Judie, 72, a retired Veterans Affairs worker who has lived all his life next door, doesn’t think the addition fits with the direction of the neighborhood. He is now trying to sell his own home and half-acre lot for $125,000.
“Well, I really think it’s a mess,” he said, looking over at the house. “It’s not going to look good in this neighborhood. They’re building everything new now.”
Bell said he wanted to keep the house in its original neighborhood, and he is unfazed by the idea of being surrounded by apartments, like a rowboat among cruise ships.
“To me, it’s actually cool,” Bell said. “I like it being busy. It’s a convenient location.”
A Denton company moved the house in mid-August to a surplus lot owned by WLD Holdings, which built the Mirada complex behind him.
Since then, crews have been at work putting in new windows and adding height to the walls to accommodate a sleeping loft. Bell plans to install old longleaf pine floors that he salvaged from a house that was next to the shotgun house at the old location.
Work stopped this week when city inspectors determined that the house didn’t have all its necessary permits, but city inspection supervisor Bobby Horner said he expected it to resume next week after city officials approved the plans.
City planner Beatriz Wharton said the city had already approved Bell’s permit application to move the house to that spot, which is in a zoning category allowing for mixed use residential and commercial.
Bell, a 2004 Reicher Catholic High School graduate, acknowledges he’s always been “more unconventional in my thinking process.”
He spent years as a hunting guide, leading expeditions to hunt alligators in the swamps of Louisiana and exotic game in Tanzania. Along the way, he experienced many forms of dwellings, including shotgun houses.
Bell said he has become “obsessed” with researching shotgun houses since spotting this one.
Shotgun houses, so called because a shotgun blast through the front door would supposedly fly out the back door, are constructed as a series of rooms stacked one behind the other.
Old photos and insurance maps suggest that shotgun houses were once plentiful in Waco’s working-class neighborhoods, often squeezed together cheek-to-jowl. Today, only a handful survive, mostly in the neighborhoods just north and south of downtown.
Common in the South
Baylor University historic preservation expert Kenneth Hafertepe said the local examples are similar to shotgun houses throughout the South.
“Shotguns were strongly associated with African-Americans in the late 19th and 20th century,” he said. “There are some scholars who think they may have roots in the Caribbean and even Africa. . . . It’s a distinctively Southern architectural form.”
The style is particularly associated with New Orleans, which has historic ties to the Caribbean. From there, the style is believed to have spread out across the South because they could be easily built and transported.
Hafertepe said Bell’s house wouldn’t likely fit with national guidelines for historic preservation because of the addition of an upstairs and changes to the windows. But he said at least the house was salvaged instead of being razed.
“The potential positive is that it can make us think about what we do need to save,” Hafertepe said.
“I think it’s now acknowledged in preservation circles that shotgun houses are an important American building type. … As the number of untouched shotgun houses dwindle, Wacoans are going to have to think about whether there’s an appropriate way of preserving one or more examples of them.”