There are so many myths about taxes in New Orleans. None so much as the ones surrounding architecture. Like most of history, the stories that persist are the ones that people believe. Here are some facts about the myths you have heard that might surprise you.
I’ve heard it said that houses were built narrow and deep to avoid width taxes. That homes were built without closets due to closet taxes. That staircases were hidden to avoid stair taxes. That walk through windows meant not getting door taxes. I’ve even heard that the Shotgun style had low ceilings because of taxation laws. These are just some of the many myths about taxes in New Orleans.
Welcome to the Myth Buster!
Tax attorneys and researchers have scoured the records of New Orleans tax history, which by the way is quiet accessible, and there was never a property tax on street frontage, façade building height, closets, doors or stairs in New Orleans. With the exception of a very short-lived chimney tax in 1794, after two devastating fires, there were no tax laws on Architectural features.
The truth is, windows were floor to ceiling for light and air. Armoires were the preferred clothing storage. Far better than damp closets. Stairs weren’t always pretty. Shotgun houses simply had low ceilings. The larger narrow and deep homes with high ceilings allotted for more yard space.
In New Orleans, there are homes from the 1850’s with closets. We have those tax records which show no taxes on said closets. Most didn’t have closets until after the Civil War. Prior to that they followed the French idea that Armoire’s were all the rage and showed wealth.
No records show any of the 13 colonies or early states having had a stair, door, height or width tax. As for the closet tax, both Virginia, in 1781, and Pennsylvania, in 1798, tried a window tax. Both were unsuccessful. Thus, there was never a closet tax.
So Where and How Did These Rumors of Taxes Start?
Most scholars think the rumors began because of England’s window tax.
From 1696 until 1851, England taxed the number of windows in homes. This was a way to tax people according to their wealth. They assumed more windows meant a larger home and more money. The window tax ultimately affected architecture in England and resulted in homes with fewer windows. We believe that English tax law is the basis for the rumors about windows here in the States. We also believe that is the same source for the closet rumors, even though England didn’t actually have that tax. As for the other myths, sometimes people just make up good stories and they stick.
History is Fascinating Even Without the Inaccuracies!
New Orleans has kept detailed tax records and they are available for all to see. Those records are in our Public Library. Take a journey over there and peer in for yourself. You won’t have to search long. The records are easy to find and easy to read. They reveal the undeniable facts. Property in 19th Century New Orleans was taxed the same way it is today. Taxes were, and are, based upon the assessed value of the property.
So, open the windows and doors and fill your closets to the brim. People just lived lie a little different back then than we do today. Now you know.