What is a Railroad / Shotgun Apartment?


The terms railroad and shotgun apartments refer to two very similar, yet different types of apartments. It's not unusual for people have heard of one name, and not the other. So, while technically they refer to two slightly different layouts, common usage often combines the two into one or the other names. Often the the usage is regional, with some areas preferring one term over the other. In our experience, the term railroad apartment tends to be used in more urban areas, while shotgun apartment tends to be used in more rural areas (though not exclusively). For, when you think about it, somewhat obvious reasons. Railroad and shotgun apartments can be virtually any size, from a Junior 1 to a Junior 4 to a one-bedroom, a two-bedroom, or even a three-bedroom residence. These types of apartments are most often found in a city's oldest residential buildings, especially in brownstones, townhomes and so-called tenement buildings, as they initially appeared in the mid-1800s as a solution to overcrowding. Often these apartments were cold water flats, particularly in the tenement buildings. A cold water flat had, as the name implies, no running hot water. Frequently they shared bathrooms down the hallway with the other unit(s) on the floor. It is extremely rare to find a cold water flat these days, as they have been outlawed for some time. However, they do occasionally appear when someone in a very old rent-controlled apartment vacates their unit. The landlord is responsible for bringing the apartment up to current code.

Railroad Apartments: True Definition

A railroad apartment is defined as a residential unit which contains a series of rooms all of which are lined up with each other, from the front door to the back wall. The rooms in a true railroad apartment are connected by a single hallway that runs the length of the residence, with each room accessible through a doorway off the hall. Railroad apartments with the rooms connected by the long hallway, is an ingenious layout to deal with two very common living situations of New York City's great waves of immigration around the turn of the 20th century: multiple single men living together, all immigrants from the same country, who don't need much space in their home because they spend much of their lives working; and multi-generational, extended families who would take over two or three rooms or, if they were lucky, an entire apartment. The floor plan affords a measure of privacy, because you can't see into one room from another; an easy sense of communal living, because you are, after all, sharing the same home (as well as kitchen, living area, if any, and, of course, bathroom, when these became common); and is an efficient use of space, especially if you have two, three or four people living in each bedroom. The vast majority of these original railroad apartments are long gone, of course, but the layout remains a viable design for modern living, especially with (smaller) families and roommate situations.

Shotgun Apartments: Actual Definition

In a shotgun apartment, you'll find an floor plan with a series of aligned rooms that are connected directly with one another, without the hallway, usually delineated either by some sort of light-enhancing fold-away set of doors, such as a pair of windowed French doors, or pocket doors, or by a more traditional, single-direction, latchable or lockable door. Though such apartments are often referred to as railroads, technically these residences, lacking the long hallway in the actual unit, are shotgun homes. In older apartment houses, high land costs often resulted in narrow but deep lots, necessitating a shotgun style layout. Landlords would, depending on the lot width, either built a central staircase and hallway, with apartment flanking either side, or on a really narrow lot, just build apartments on one side of the hallway. Sometimes the apartment would run from the front to the back of the building (also known as a "floorthrough"), other times there would be two units, with one facing the front, and one facing the back. Ventilation would be provided by "notches" in the center rooms, where windows looked out into essentially an outdoor air shaft. Today apartments found in brownstone and townhouse buildings are more often of the "shotgun house" variety, with rooms just piled one after the other with no separation. These floor plans were often retrofitted when the home was converted from a single-family home, to a multi-family home. Thus, the side hallway and staircase becomes part of the "common elements" of the building, while the rooms themselves were connected by knocking through the walls that once separated the rooms. These shotgun apartments are often prized by single young professionals as well as couples, because they tend to be less expensive than their counterparts in high-rise buildings; because old townhomes and brownstones themselves tend to be on pretty blocks, in desirable neighborhoods; and because the layout affords nifty design solutions to its intrinsic challenges. Many shotgun apartments of this sort have the kitchen area in the front, a smallish middle room (or two), and a wider room in the back, with the two sets of windows looking out, if you're fortunate, onto a backyard, garden or patio. Whether to put the bed in the middle room and save the large room for a living room, or combine the first two rooms into a living/dining area, and saving the large back room for your bed, is the central dilemma faced, and one that has led to many clever, elegant design solutions.
Back to Guide