The Boston Three-Decker

January 16, 2010

Apropos of nothing, I was in Boston last summer and fell in love with their pervasive architectural form the three-decker.  The friends I was visiting live on the second floor of one and I find it quite a charming abode.  They’ve got autonomy over their walls, a passel of architectural detail and interest, views and light out every window and a nice neighborhood.  But interestingly, although three-deckers are now seen as a characteristic regional treasure they were once reviled as havens for the undesirable and early zoning administrators worked hard to legislate them right out of existence.  I spent a day in the Boston Public Library during my trip and this is what I came up with on the subject.

The three-decker became common in the late 1870’s as an alternative to the “french  flat” apartment buildings which had previously housed the newly arrived immigrant populations of the time.  Three-deckers had to be built around the fringe areas where wooden buildings weren’t yet prohibited.  Something around 15,000 were built between 1880 and 1930.  They served the street car commuters who separated work and living according to late 19th century models.  Each building had three independent units, each with the front and back porches to extend their access to direct light and air.

In the twenties the three-decker became unpopular.  Advocacy groups labeled it as a tenement and they became a “symbol of urban blight and encroaching immigrant populations.”  Cars and highways made commuting suburbs more accessible and “the last building permit for a three-decker was issued in 1928.  Even though many housing advocates agreed that three-deckers offered light, ventilation, privacy and affordability, the reputation of the units was so impugned that the housing form was not revived following the great depression.”*

The New York Times wrote up the difficulties of the three-decker in an article on foreclosures last summer here and this is a fascinating pdf with hand drawings of different Boston housing types.

*all this according to Kieth Morgan in his Buildings of Massachusetts.

**image from citydata.com here.

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