The urban landscape of southern New England displays an iconic form of domestic architecture seldom found elsewhere: stacked three-unit apartment house commonly called a “triple decker.” Thousands of such structures were built between 1880 and 1930, principally to house an ever-growing and largely immigrant working population. Although the social and economic forces that created the style have long since vanished, a surprising number of triple deckers have survived, thanks due to their basic livability and potential for adaptive re-use.
Although constructed by a myriad of small-time designer-builders, most triple-deckers share a common set of design characteristics, determined largely by maximizing practicality while minimizing less-desirable aspects of urban tenements. Three features in particular are predominate. First, generally there is one apartment per floor, with adequate roominess (1000-1200 square feet), numerous windows on all sides, and generous porches on the front and often on the rear. Second, the room arrangement is typical of middle-class single-family homes, typically including a parlor, dining area, kitchen, bath and two bedrooms. Third, architectural integrity provided visual interest: while not professionally designed, most copied popular Queen Anne Style features such as strong vertical lines (stacked columned porches and window bays), visual interest (contrasting siding textures and colors), and decorative details such as art-glass windows.
Triple deckers were marketed to a specific type of buyer: successful new home-owner. Within the building, one unit could be the homeowner’s residence, while the other units either provided rental income or could house members of an extended family. Thus, this sort of home ownership not only provided a taste of middle-class respectability, but also offered an entry to middle-class economic security. However, society at large did not share this vision in the long run, principally due to anti-immigrant bias. Passage of strict building codes coupled with immigration restriction brought an end to new construction by the later 1920s.
Oakland Avenue, the western edge of the Smith Hill neighborhood, features a fine display of surviving triple-deckers, a streetscape little changed for nearly a century. Most of these were built during the 1920s, when clearly this was a middle-class neighborhood. Although urban decay previously left its mark, many of the structures have been rehabilitated, finding use as housing for students at nearby Providence College. In most cases, original details have been lost, but the overall impression is intact. Well-kept examples abound, an image of what much of Providence once was.