In the years before World War I, New England’s iconic triple decker brought thousands of immigrants into the middle class. Triple deckers also inspired the undying hatred of housing reformers.
Triple deckers sprang up in New England’s booming mill towns and industrial cities between 1870 and 1910. Ambitious immigrants loved them because they offered a path to home ownership. A family could live in one apartment and collect rents from two.
But to housing reformers, the triple decker was a fire trap and a nasty place to live. Much better, thought the reformer, were small single-family homes in the suburbs and subsidized public housing in the cities.
The housing reformers prevailed – for a while.
History of the Triple Decker
The name triple decker originally referred to a British man-of-war, which had three gun decks.
By 1870, New England’s economy boomed. An influx of immigrants caused the populations to triple over the next few decades in Boston, Lowell and Worcester in Massachusetts, Lewiston in Maine and Bridgeport in Connecticut. Populations quadrupled in Fall River, Mass., Pawtucket, R.I., Waterbury, Conn., and Manchester and Nashua in New Hampshire.
Poor families moved near factories and mills to work, but at first many scrounged for a place to live. They jammed into stables, cellars and even tents.
Investors saw an opportunity to make money by building light-framed
wooden three-flats. For example, Peter Baker owned a lead manufacturing company in Worcester. He built several triple deckers on Vernon Hill as speculative investments to house Irish working-class families.
Athanase Dussault, a carpenter, built a cluster of six triple deckers in Fall River in 1916 for a successful peddler named David Boguslavsky.
Hundreds more mill owners, small builders and carpenters put up the wooden three flats all over the region. They concentrated in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New England's industrial cities.
In Fall River, 4,120 of the city's 17,698 structures are triple deckers.
Living in or near a New England triple decker, wrote The New York Times, was like hating the Yankees or skipping work on St. Patrick’s Day.
The triple decker never won any architectural awards, but it enjoyed enormous popularity. It gave working- and middle-class families a chance to own a home. They could live in one unit and rent out the other two.
The triple decker 'succeeded remarkably in housing and helping the poor,' wrote Howard Husock in his 1990 article Rediscovering the three-decker house.
Unlike New York’s cramped, windowless brick tenements, New England’s triple deckers offered the worker a big, airy living space with heat and hot water.
An ambitious clerk or mechanic who earned an average of $25 a week could rent for $20-$25 an apartment with a parlor, dining room, kitchen and bathroom. It also had a stove, hot water, two bedrooms, two porches, heat, electricity and hardwood floors.
In 1947, the Worcester Telegram called triple deckers ‘monuments to a time of good workmanship, good family life, and good practical answers to the problem of rapid city expansion.’
Some consider Worcester the epicenter and birthplace of triple-decker construction.
Triple deckers made up half of all building construction between 1890 and 1900 in Worcester. Of the 6,000 built, 4,000 remain, and as late as 1972 they housed one-third of the city's 100,000 residents.
The National Register of Historic Places lists many Worcester triple deckers, such as the Ludwig Anderson house built in 1896. Anderson, a grocer, first owned the triple decker on Vernon Hill. Swedish immigrants moved there to work in nearby steel wire mills. Anderson's first tenants included two Swedish families headed by a machinist and a woodworker. Later tenants included wireworkers, machinists, a clerk, a chauffeur and a toolmaker.
Not everyone in Worcester – or elsewhere, for that matter – fell in love with the triple decker. In 1900, the Worcester Board of Trade called the triple decker ‘a blot on the landscape.’ It towered, 'like an enormous dry-goods box on our sightly hills.'
The so-called ‘reformers’ who tried to get rid of the triple decker also, not coincidentally, wanted to get rid of immigrants.
In 1894, Prescott Farnsworth Hall and two other Harvard graduates formed the Immigration Restriction League to sound the alarm about the dangers of immigration.
Hall also campaigned against triple deckers as chairman of the Town Improvement Committee of the Brookline Civic Society.
"Americans are both esthetically defective and blindly devoted to obsolete ideas as to the extent of personal liberty,' he wrote in support of banning triple deckers. He argued they caused deadly fires and didn't benefit their residents.
What Prescott Farnsworth Hall really didn't like was immigrants joining America’s middle class.
Another housing ‘reform’ group, the National Housing Association, in 1912 published a guide to reform that advocated single-family homes in the suburbs and subsidized public housing in the cities. The problem with public housing, though, was that it didn’t allow tenants to become homeowners.
But under pressure from such groups, Massachusetts in 1912 passed a law allowing cities and towns to ban triple deckers. Not in so many words, though. The language said municipalities could prevent construction of any 'wooden tenement' in which 'cooking shall be done above the second floor.'
The Triple Decker Menace
The Providence Chamber of Commerce put it more bluntly in a 1917 Providence magazine article that attacked the three decker menace.
People, except for Italians and Jews, were realizing ‘it lowers one's social standing to be rated as a three decker dweller,’ argued the chamber.
It described the unpleasant experience of a middle-floor tenant, with tramping feet on the thin board floor overhead and the aroma of cooking from the lower floor. Children squabbled, mothers quarreled over yard use on wash day and clutter blocked the landings. "They have moved on to the greater joy and comfort of the two-tenement house," noted the chamber.
The chamber urged Rhode Island to ban the triple decker menace and follow the example of Bridgeport, Conn., and 36 Massachusetts municipalities such as Arlington, Belmont, Brookline and Swampscott.
More restrictive laws followed, and by 1927 it was almost impossible to build a triple decker.
Fall and Rise of the Triple Decker
By the 1950s, flight to the suburbs and urban renewal caused the abandonment or destruction of thousands of triple deckers.
Banks didn’t like lending mortgage money for old triple-deckers. They fell apart quickly because absentee landlords abandoned and neglected them.
In 1975, the Boston Globe editorialized that people still viewed the triple decker as, 'second rate, even hazardous housing.'
But times changed. And, as the Globe pointed out, 'nobody can afford to replace them.'
"Homely though they may be, they are too useful for destruction and there is nothing to take their place,” the Globe opined.
It turned out that a triple-decker built for working-class factory workers in 1910 fit the needs of middle-class professionals a century later.
In the 1980s, interest rates soared, money dried up for public housing and condomania took over.
Banks then changed their minds and began lending for mortgages on triple decker condominiums. Builders even started to build new triple-deckers in Boston.
“Their economical value has stood the test of time,” wrote Boston magazine in 2016.
Sally Zimmerman, preservation manager for Historic New England, said triple-deckers would have been demolished and replaced with smaller structures if it hadn’t been for the condominium.
“The condominium is the real savior of the three-decker,” she said.
If you enjoyed this story about the triple decker, you may also want to read about New England's Sears houses here.
Images: Ludwig Eaton By Pvmoutside - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15657274; Boston triple deckers By myself (User:Piotrus) - Own work (taken by myself), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6651986. This story was updated in 2019.