Remember When: Worcester's Three Deckers
By Phil Heywood, Briarwood resident and regular contributor to News & Notes, the monthly residents’ newsletter.
If you grew up in Worcester chances are that at some point in the past you, your family, or at least someone you knew lived in a triple-decker. New England is famous for this style of housing with Worcester having a large share! From 1890 to 1900 more than half of all the construction in this city was made up of three-deckers. This was economic boom times in our city and these structures were “home” to the wave of Irish, Polish, Swedish, German and other immigrants coming to work in our factories. In all, more than 6,000 houses were built in this period with 4,876 still standing today.
They were bought by families who would live in one unit and rent out the other two, helping to pay off the mortgage and real estate taxes. Generations of the same family would often live through the decades in the same house. Vernon Hill and Grafton Hill today are great examples of three decker neighborhoods. Briarwood residents have shared with me several examples of what living in one was all about. Everyone always used the back door as the front door was opened only for the Doctor and the Minister. Since there was no central heat the family lived in the kitchen most of the time. The parlor was only opened on Sundays. Wash was hung on a clothes reel on the back porch (it froze solid in winter).
Three deckers are distinguished by their boxy styles, with each floor made up of the same number of large rooms and layout. Generally, there are between four and six rooms on each floor in addition to a bathroom and pantry. The layout included a kitchen, a parlor/living room and two to three bedrooms. In most cases all three floors had a front and back porch. They were built on narrow lots because sewer connection charges were based on street frontage thus their narrow, rectangular shape. This allowed for windows on all four sides, which kept the rooms cooler in summer.
As you travel around Worcester you will become aware of certain streets filled with this type of building. To view different styles of three deckers all on the same street, drive down the block on Elm St. opposite Elm Park. The Telegram & Gazette has characterized the city’s three deckers as “monuments to a time of good family life, and good practical answers to the problem of rapid city expansion.”