Preserving Boston’s Iconic Three-Decker House

A Three-Decker Home in Cobble Hill, Somerville, MABoston – With their light wooden frames, flat or slightly pitched roofs and stacked porches, the three-decker residence has become a staple in the architectural make up of Boston’s urban neighborhoods. According to Arthur J. Krim, a professor of historic preservation at Boston Architectural College, in an article featured on, preserving these three-deckers is the key to maintaining the historic character of Boston. In the same article, Mayor Thomas M. Menino points out that they are not like any other apartment building or rowhouse, and their unique design cannot be found in any other city. For all of their distinct qualities and characteristics, these houses are a valuable asset to the city that should not only be preserved for their architectural value, but also due to updated zoning laws and building codes preventing any new three-decker houses from being constructed.

Unfortunately, many of these residences have been foreclosed and/or left to fall into disrepair. In response, Boston city officials are initiating the “3D Campaign”.

The $3 million scheme will work to return three-decker houses to their former glory by promoting the purchase and renovation of these properties, and providing current and prospective residents with loans and grants to accomplish the work necessary. Funding for this project will be coming from a combined effort between the federal Community Development Block Grant and the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Potential buyers looking to move into one of these iconic structures can also look to local banks that have pledged to provide an additional $74 million in mortgages.

Historically, the three-decker design first came about in the 1880s and the 1890s when Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants were looking to move away from the crowded tenement communities and into a home that would demonstrate their success and upward advancement within society. Designed to maximize space, the three-decker could house up to three families. This allowed owners to live in one unit while renting out the other spaces as a means of receiving additional income to counter the costs of homeownership.

Beginning in the 1950s, however, with the growing suburbs becoming a more appealing alternative for Boston’s better-off populace, many urban three-deckers began to fall into various stages of disrepair. And even from as early as the 1970s, city officials have been working to promote the restoration and maintenance of people’s existing private homes.

Free of charge for owners and tenants to join, the 3D membership program will provide classes on being a good landlord, landscaping for small yards, lessons on restoring three-decker windows, and ideas on renovating the hallmark porch. It will also provide discounts at hardware stores for when owners choose to facilitate their own DIY projects.

Manager of historic preservation services at Historic New England, Sally Zimmerman, chimes in and says she hopes that the city’s campaign will maintain the house’s look and style. While the fundamental wood aesthetic calls for a more constant upkeep than stone or brick, all it really takes to keep these three-deckers alive is a little know-how. Zimmerman remains positive regarding the three-decker’s potential to be brought up to par of today’s modern lifestyle, while maintaining the ornament aspects of their architectural distinction.

For more information, please visit the City of Boston’s Triple-Decker Campaign page.

Photo by Brady Wahl, Flickr Creative Commons.

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Profile photo of Euginie Kwan About Euginie Kwan

Euginie KwanEuginie Kwan is an architectural professional based in Boston. She received her Bachelor of Architecture degree from Carnegie Mellon University in May 2011, with a minor concentration in Architectural History.

She believes in an integrated approach to architecture and has experience contributing to residential, commercial, civic and historic preservation projects in a variety of capacities. She has worked for Simonchee Architects (HK) and is always on the lookout for new opportunities to expand her career pursuits. Her professional interests include sustainable technologies, green building, adaptive reuse and historic preservation.

Euginie’s interest in historic architecture and preservation has led to her pursuit of active projects in conservation and adaptive reuse. She has interned with the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation as the Coordinator of the 2012 Winter Workshop series which promotes sustainable retrofit and renovation projects to historic homeowners in the Dane County, WI area, worked with the National Park Service (NPS) to further the development of historical sites in the Greater Boston Area, and conducted research for the Chinese University of Hong Kong for existing and potential restoration projects in the area.

As an avid traveler, and having lived in and experienced various regional and international locales, Euginie is constantly observing architectural trends from different parts of the world as a primary means of influencing her own work. Outside of the world of architecture, she likes to spend her free time reading books, listening to music, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and the local animal shelter, and playing as much Ultimate Frisbee as possible.