The Boston triple-decker is perhaps the most New England housing type of them all. A simple wooden flat construction, the triple-decker provides comfortable and reasonably private housing accommodation for three families on two lots. While others, such as Old Urbanist’s Charlie Gardner, have pointed out some of the triple-deckers’ limitations, they are inarguably the solution Victorian Boston either wanted or needed.

Yet they are also incredibly murky. They spring as if from whole cloth in a region whose previous architectural vernacular was vastly different, with no clear origin. They are different enough from the only other wooden buildings in New England — farmhouses and Maritime rowhomes — that they clearly spring from an entirely different tradition. In terms of time and place, triple-deckers are, for all intents and purposes, naturalized immigrants.

Where did they come from?

In a previous post, I explored wooden residential vernaculars in the United States, itself a strangely murky topic, and came to the conclusion they developed in the Mohawk Valley, from there migrated into the Lower Lakes region, and then were disseminated nationwide through the development of ideas such as mail-order and tract housing. I also suggested that the New England triple-decker was a branch of this tradition. I want now to explore why I came to this conclusion.

A City of Brick and Wood

Boston is a bit schizo, in terms of residential architecture. Where Mid-Atlantic cities have a tight, well-defined brick rowhome vernacular, and New York has its blocky vernacular that can be purposed to rowhomes or apartments, Boston has two competing — almost clashing — vernaculars: a brick rowhome, clearly developed from the British style, and the wooden triple-deckers, as different from them as green-skin space babes.

Look closer and we can see some patterns that tell us how and why this may have come to be.

Boston’s oldest intact neighborhoods, Beacon Hill and the North End, feature charming British rowhomes that would not look out of place in the oldest parts of Mid-Atlantic cities — or British burgs like Bath or Bristol. However, like other such core neighborhoods, these would have begun to fall in esteem in the mid 19th century.

Part of what egged that on would have doubtless been the construction of Back Bay and the South End, fens surrounding the Boston peninsula’s neck that were drained, filled in, and turned into stately brick rowhomes, real estate projects that, for all intents and purposes, tripled the city’s size. These parts of town quickly became the wealthy’s preferred neighborhoods, a distinction they wear to this day.

The triple-decker, by contrast, does not encroach closer to the city center than the South Side, on the other side of a rail approach. They have no clear relationships with the stately brick vernacular Boston’s elite favored; they are interspersed with some cramped Maritime wooden rowhomes that Boston’s period suburbs (e.g. Cambridge favored), which only serve to highly how utterly unlike them the three-flats are; they even give way to masonry where people with means wanted their own Brahmin-esque rowhomes. All of this is to say: the triple-decker is a housing solution clearly quickly and widely adopted as if out of nowhere, and even at the time of its adoption were clearly meant to cater to the working class.

It makes a lot of sense that workingmen might favor triple-deckers, particularly in a society where homeownership wasn’t as important as it would become in the 20th century. Maritime rowhomes are not unlike Philadelphia trinities or Manayunk rowhomes — small and cramped on the inside. By contrast, a triple-decker’s flat, even though it would have had roughly the same net amount of space, would have felt open and airy, more spacious and gracious. Boston’s builders could cram one more family into the same space that two Maritimes rowhomes would have taken up, while at the same time upcharging workers for the privilege. It would have felt like an all-around win-win.

But this only tells us why the triple-decker would be rapidly adopted in the Victorian era. It tells us nothing about where it came from. Indeed, we can see from this analysis that the reason three-flats were so popular was because they were such a radical departure from the region’s pre-existing rowhome vernaculars … something that only further highlights the style’s immigrant nature.

So Who Else Did Flats?

Flats weren’t popular in colonial British cities. We can see this by looking at the three great groups of colonial architectural vernaculars — New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and (what remains of) Tidewater. In each of these places, separated by the organic New Englander street systems, the tidy Baroque Tidewater parade-ways, and the endlessly utilitarian Mid-Atlantic grids, the same type of subdivision plan dominates throughout: narrow and deep lots, and houses optimized to fit. Workingmen usually lived in houses that were single rooms stacked on top of each other, undoubtedly cramped and uncomfortable in an era of large families. As fire concerns crisscrossed the continent, major cities increasingly required brick, resulting in the antebellum living arrangements so well preserved in Philadelphia and Boston.

There were two major colonies that did do flats, however. One was New France’s core, up by the St. Lawrence, which would later become part of Canada; we can see widespread use of brick flats throughout Montréal in a form that, at street level, looks and feels like rowhomes. The other was the Low Countries’ successful colony around the Hudson River fjord and the terminal-moraine outcrop sprawling into the sea, one of the main conduits for furs from the expanding Iroquoian empire to Europe. England would later acquire this colony and rename it, but its Dutch heritage remained strong.

One way it did so was with the use of potash in cooking, from which modern quick breads and cookies developed. Another was its flat-tolerant vernacular.

The walk-up flat is simultaneously a new and ancient building type. Large apartment buildings were known in Rome, for example, but largely fell out of favor during the medieval era. Indeed, rowhomes are built on a medieval model of housing: a tiny plot of land, where the family shop would be located on the ground floor and their living quarters above. In larger and denser European cities, owners would build extra working space and rent it out; eventually, wealthier renters would dispense with the workspace and simply provide a structure subdivided between distinct living spaces.

Modern flats as such probably originated sometime during the 17th or 18th centuries on the continent: the very different way that Europe would approach flat architecture compared to North America suggests that the technology was still in infancy when Britain came into ownership of the North America’s other Continental colonies. But they were also latecomers to Britain, and (this is important) had also spread to New France and New Netherlands before the British took them over. This explains why native British colonies did not have flats, nor New Sweden, but why Québéc and New York do.

Midwestern Interlude

Residential Vernaculars” mainly explored different modes of urbanization associated with different (Northern) crossings of the Alleghenies. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis are clearly rowhome cities; Buffalo, Cleveland, and Chicago just as clearly … aren’t.

In fact, Chicago is also interesting for our discussion here, as it is home to three-flats. We have a fair grasp of their derivation in the area — the Great Chicago Fire would have resulted in masonry requirements for larger residential structures, and the three-flat appears to have already been a common multifamily variant of the balloon style common in the Northern Lakes.

New England triple-deckers and Chicago three-flats have a lot in common, actually. Both are fully-detached walk-up triplexes — a solution not found in European flats … or Montréalais plexes … or New York apartments … or, for that matter, anywhere else outside the US. And while the only thing we can say for sure about the triple-decker’s origin is that it was clearly not in New England, because the three-flat is closely tied to the Lower Lakes vernacular as a masonry variant on the region’s balloon-frame’s multifamily variant — and not the only one, at that — if we can figure out where the Lower Lakes vernacular developed, then it may well be possible that triple-deckers have the same place of origin.

Canal Cities

My thesis is that we can — and that we can see where.

It is the early 19th century, and New York is falling behind at opening up its frontier. Philadelphia is linked with much of Appalachia and the Ohio Valley by road by this time; New York has, until recently, been blocked from doing the same by Iroquoian strength in the Mohawk Valley. (It’s worth pointing out here that the Pittsburgh region was part of the British frontier even prior to the Seven Years’ War; the same was not true of the Buffalo or Cleveland areas.) With the diminution of Iroquoian power, the Mohawk Valley was opened to development, and a water connection between the Hudson and Lake Erie was completely feasible in a way that one between the Potomac or Susquehanna and Ohio was not.

This led to the construction of the Erie Canal, linking New York with the freshwater sea, a geographical advantage that Philadelphia and Baltimore would be hard-pressed to counter. When the Erie Canal began construction, most of the populations of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois lay around the Ohio Valley. (We can see evidence of this by noting that Michigan was admitted to the Union some twenty years after even Illinois, suggesting it remained sparsely populated for some time relative to its neighbors.) But with the easy link between New York and the Great Lakes, it could make up for lost time through superior transportation — and even potentially edge out Pennsylvanian influence in what was, at the time, the western frontier.

So we can clearly see that the economic forces at work in the Mohawk Valley were clearly New York’s. Montréal has a better path into the Great Lakes and would have had its own Canadian issues to deal with. We also have a traceable path for the Lower Lakes vernacular back towards the Mohawk Valley area, just as there is a traceable path for early Ohio Valley architecture all the way back to Philadelphia. We can, however, note with some consternation that this path only goes back to the Mohawk Valley, with known social — but no physical — connections to New York.

Or aren’t there? One of the major features of the New Yorker brownstone is that it has single-family and multi-family configurations, where multi-family configuration was only later introduced to the Mid-Atlantic rowhome and was probably alien to Boston rowhomes until the 20th century, long after triple-deckers’ rise. What do we see with the Lower Lakes’ balloon frames? Single- and multi-family configurations. In fact, these two configurations exist side-by-side in upstate New York’s canalside cities: Rome, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester. It would appear, then, that builders in the Erie Canal area had a general sense of house-ness that came from the city.

This gives rise to the next question. Why detached structures? After all, no major urban vernacular in the ca. 1820 United States used detached structures. And using detached structures in was was then, as now, the snowiest part of the country doesn’t really make sense when one generally seeks to share warmth in wintertime.

Because the Lower Lakes vernacular is unrelated to any colonial vernacular at first glance, and reveals its deeper relationship to the New York vernacular only on closer examination, the answer is surely something that must have been in the air upstate in the 1820s. One possibility is that they were patterned after Iroquois longhouses; another, local farmhouses. However, the snowiness (upstate New York is among the world’s snowiest places) — and the fact that the balloon-frame vernacular’s earliest known realization was the gablefront house — points to another possibility: the gables kept snow from piling up on rooftops, and builders were forced to place side yards to provide a place for snow to collect to. In this way, the mechanics of snow solve the mystery surrounding the detached balloon-frame’s rise.

When we explore upstate’s older canalside cities, we can now read them like a book. Wood was a preferred building material because the more skilled craftsmen, with masonry experience, were working on the canal. Detaching the houses and adding gables were needed to deal with copious snow Lake Erie sends into the region every winter. And single-family and small flats were copiously intermixed in the way the builders knew back home.

Later, even as the skilled masons were freed up to work on other projects, the habituation to wooden dwellings — much cheaper and faster to build than masonry ones — led to their explosive growth across the regions newly accessible from the Erie Canal: Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and eventually across the Plains and into the West, where they easily outcompeted the older, more conservative Ohio Valley vernacular. Needing a value-added proposition, masons were freed up to work on ever-more-opulent commercial and public architecture, and masonry residential was only reinstated in Midwestern cities after fire ravaged their first phases (which had also become rarer due to better public services). And — for the purposes of this discussion — one also notes that the Mohawk Valley, where this vernacular first arose, is, conveniently, just west of New England.

The House Also Migrates

Rapid industrialization was problematic for British and British-derived vernaculars. British vernaculars show incredible adverseness to multifamily housing, resulting in patently awful working-class solutions like the back-to-back; trinities and Maritime rowhomes of the era were not much better. Because New York was much less averse to the flat, they were able to provide a roomier alternative (at least, until New York tenements, too, became overcrowded).

However, for western New England, the combination of improved living conditions and cheapness of construction the balloon-frame Mohawk Valley flats offered offered a much better solution to working-class housing than anything else in the area. These triplexes, increasingly disassociated from their single-family gablefront cousins, saw their roofs flattened (New England winters are much less severe in the snow department), but were increasingly constructed in neighborhoods consisting almost entirely of them.

Springfield, Massachusetts, is western New England’s largest city; its vernacular (or what remains of it) is also largely a gable-for-gable duplicate of that found across the Berkshires; the same is also true of Pittsfield, Holyoke, and even Worcester. Indeed, one could be forgiven for wondering whether Boston ever developed secondary cities the way Philadelphia did!

Conclusion

So by the mid-19th century, the style of housing first devised in the Mohawk Valley had expanded in just about every direction, including into New England and practically right up to Boston’s doorstep. The last piece of the puzzle now falls into place: Boston’s builders of the generation immediately after Back Bay’s developers simply took the multifamily style they saw in nearby Worcester and built it back in Boston. From a hearth several hundred miles away, from New Yorker ideas executed in wood and optimized for snow, Boston builders picked a low-hanging fruit that they integrated — in the same schizoid way that Lower Lakers integrated every classical style under the sun into their commercial architecture — into their own rowhome vernacular, a vernacular that their own city region‘s inland cities had been loath to develop.

The triple-decker is indeed an immigrant in New England. It is especially so in Boston. Its origins lie in an altogether different vernacular tradition, and its adoption by Bostonites to the point they have made it their own reminds us all that, while the United States has many architectural vernaculars, willingness to solve a practical problem with solutions from a different idea set trumps local loyalty in the vast majority of the country.

But it also cautions us against running with new solutions at the expense of our own traditions. Boston builders didn’t just wholeheartedly adopt the triple-decker; by the turn of the century, it — and the rest of the Lower Lakes residential package — had utterly displaced almost all know-how for developing the antebellum Boston vernacular, that same vernacular whose last hurrah was in Back Bay and the South End.

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