Boston’s Weed: The Triple-Decker

Triple-DeckerOne of the first things a visitor sees when leaving Boston’s Logan airport are “triple-deckers” (other-wise known as “three-deckers”) – the narrow, three story, wooden, multifamily homes that surround the city. They are as distinctive to the region as the Boston accent.

Tens of thousands were built all over Southeastern New England, in cities like Worcester, Fall River and Providence, Rhode Island. Boston alone has over 20,000 triple-deckers. They dominate many of the city’s “streetcar suburbs” including Charlestown, Somerville and Medford, which all hold portions of Paul Revere’s Route.

Built mostly between 1880 and 1930, these tall narrow houses attracted and housed the huge influx of immigrant families to the area. Triple-deckers were built on tiny lots and with wood (rather than Boston’s other well-known, but pricier housing material: brick), so they were more affordable. Each house had three identical floor plans with big porches on the front or back and windows on all sides. A family would purchase a house and live on one of the floors and rent out the other two apartments to pay the mortgage. Many triple-deckers held extended families. The triple-decker was a stepping stone for many families, either as a first-time home owner, or as a tenant. I know the story well, because my mother grew up in triple-deckers. So did her parents, and her grandparents too, when they arrived from Ireland. I lived in a triple-decker for a while not long after graduating from college. My older brother owned the house and lived on the top floor with his new wife and child. I lived on the middle floor and another renter lived below. These solidly built multi-family homes survive and serve the same population today.

Triple-deckers, however were not looked upon favorably by everyone. The growth of these multi-family houses filled with working class families (many of whom were immigrants) made the wealthier suburbs of Boston very uncomfortable. “Boston’s Weed” was a nickname for triple deckers at that time. The Tenement House Act of 1912 was the weed-killer for certain towns – stopping growth at their borders. By adopting the new law which prescribed specific zoning and multi-family restrictions, wealthier towns – like my own (Winchester), made building triple-deckers impossible.

So, following Paul Revere’s route, you’ll pass through some towns which are filled with triple deckers, like Somerville, and others with not a single one, like Lexington. And in my own life, I’ve lived on both sides of the divide.

 

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