The failure of the Howland Mill Village experiment may have been the final straw for New Bedford mill owners. By the end of the 19th century, they had decided to get out of the landlord business. Along with the financial and management burden of rental properties, by the 1890s housing reformers began to note the “squalid” and “pestiferous” conditions of the city’s mill-owned tenements, mounting pressure to improve workers’ living conditions. At the same time, advances in loom technology reduced the number of skilled workers, and the need for mill owners to provide incentives to attract them.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, contractors built most tenements on speculation, selling them to landlord-investors who rented units to peripatetic working-class tenants. The building form they chose was the iconic New England three-decker tenement.
Three-deckers first appeared in the 1850s in New England mill cities like Worcester, Providence, and Fall River. Potomska Mills built what were probably New Bedford’s first three-deckers (now demolished) in the 1870s at the intersections of Rivet and First and Second Streets. In its most basic form, a three-decker consists of three floors with a separate residence on each level, connected by a common entrance and staircase. By 1876, at least one three-decker in New Bedford included stacked front porches, a feature that characterized this form of housing by the beginning of the 20th century.
Mill construction peaked in New Bedford in the first decade of the 20th century, along with a pressing need to house French Canadian workers flooding into the city. Between 1908 and 1913, 1,079 three-deckers sprung up throughout New Bedford, mostly in the North and South Ends where the majority of the mills were located. The early flat-roof and gable end forms gave way to the pyramidal hip-roofed version, which is now ubiquitous throughout the city.
The typical three-decker utilizes an elongated floor plan, with the kitchen and bathroom in the rear, a multi-purpose work and eating space in the middle, and a sitting room—and sometimes a parlor—in the front. Bedrooms were on one side or the other. Outside, a narrow side yard led to the back stairs, punctuated at intervals by small laundry porches on each floor. The back stairs served as the main entrance for most three-decker occupants.
The three-deckers’ most identifiable feature—the stacked front porches, or piazzas, tucked against a protruding three-story bay—may have been the space least utilized by the tenements’ occupants. Seemingly useless embellishments on houses meant for the working poor, developers and reformers envisioned the piazzas as symbols of respectability. Their architectural detail evoked middle class housing, and their visibility would allow residents to monitor the behavior of their children, and of each other. Impractical for a class of people that had little leisure time, these porches may have proved most useful for storage.
The age of the three-decker was brief. By the mid-teens, they had been singled out by reformers as a form of immoral cohabitation and inferior to single-family housing, and by xenophobes who deplored three-deckers as storehouses of immigrants. A 1916 city ordinance restricted wood frame housing to two stories, ostensibly for fire safety, but in reality, to limit the stigma of overcrowded immigrant worker housing.
Today, about 1,200 three-deckers survive in New Bedford. Many of them no longer have their front porches, a result of the expense of repair and replacement and the reluctance of insurers to indemnify recent owners from the supposed hazard of three floors of open-air piazzas. In addition, the succeeding waves of Polish, Portuguese, and Central American immigrants may have prioritized other elements of these buildings—vegetable gardens and basement kitchens, for example—as a means to retain elements of their own cultures.