The Triple Decker
I live in Providence, Rhode Island, a city that has long welcomed immigrants. Sitting out on my front porch on a summer’s evening, I can hear conversations in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Farsi. Many of my neighbors are graduate students or residents at the nearby hospitals, renting apartments in the triple-deckers that line our street. A few of my neighbors immigrated to Rhode Island many years ago, and were lucky enough to buy an entire triple-decker house. Living on one floor, while renting the other two floors, these families were able to achieve the American Dream of home ownership.
What is a triple-decker? It’s a three-story, wooden structure that contains a separate apartment on each floor. Thousands of triple-deckers were built in New England between the 1870’s and the 1930’s, as a form of housing for the immigrants arriving to work in the booming manufacturing industries. Many of these houses were built within walking distance of the factories.
While the walls are thin, and the stairwells narrow, the triple-decker offered a much improved living situation compared to the tenements of New York City. Each floor has a bathroom, a kitchen, two or three bedrooms, a living room, and a front porch. Also, the triple-decker has some style. The majority were built by individual carpenters, or small construction companies. Most of these houses have Queen Anne architectural elements, including beautiful stained glass windows.
It was not unusual for generations of families to all grow up in the same triple-decker. I still find it incredible that I daily meet folks in their 80’s and 90’s who have lived in the same house their entire lives. Their parents or grandparents came here as immigrants and bought a triple-decker. When the children of the original owners married, they moved onto another floor and paid rent to their parents. Eventually, the grandkids came along, grew up, and rented their own floor. By that time, the senior citizens of the family usually moved to the first floor, to avoid the stairs. I have lived all over the United States, and have only found these unique generational living arrangements in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.