This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
Watch this project from start-to-finish in all-new episodes of This Old House starting the first week of April on PBS. Check your local listings.
In some ways, the July 4th celebration in 2019 was a quiet one in Dorchester, a big, vibrant neighborhood less than 10 miles south of downtown Boston. It was nearly 11 P.M. when Carol Wideman, a well-known and well-loved matriarch in the community, was getting ready to retire after spending the evening with friends at her next-door neighbors’ cookout.
Shown above: Retired accountant Carol Wideman shares the 1905 triple-decker with her sister Willie (left) and other family members; she has called the building home for more than 40 years. above: Though most of the fire damage was in the back of the house, its street-facing facade, with distinctive corbels and columned front porches, will be refreshed as well, with new gray siding, blue-painted trim, and a burgundy front door.
Suddenly, panicked shouts filled the air—joining the occasional crack, pop, and boom. When Carol raced to her rear window, she saw her neighbors’ home engulfed in flames, the result of an errant firework. “Within seconds, the flames climbed high and leaped from their back porch over to mine,” she recalls.
Miraculously, no one was injured in the blaze. But Carol’s 1905 wood-frame triplex was left uninhabitable, damaged by the heat and smoke, and by the dousings from fire hoses used to vanquish the flames. Making the house—and Carol’s family—whole again is a subject of This Old House’s 42nd television season, with TOH home builder Charlie Silva leading the charge.
Carol’s history in the house stretches back four decades. When she bought the property in 1980, a veteran and a family lived there, whom she allowed to stay on. In time, they moved out, making way for her own family, and a stream of foster children she cared for. At the time of the fire, Carol shared the top-floor apartment with her sister Dorothy. Another sister, Willie, lived on the first level with a nephew, and on the second floor was the sisters’ mom and two great-nephews.
Shown left: With the top-floor ceiling down, the roof will receive insulation—for the first time. The three-sided bays at the front of the house are another detail that distinguishes triple-deckers.
Shown right: The worst of the fire damage occurred at the rear, where the plaster walls had to be ripped down to the studs. Blasting any charred structure with dry ice would remove the smoky odor; open walls will be rebuilt with blueboard and skim-coated with plaster.
After the fire, Carol and her sisters started sharing a one-bedroom apartment in the area, and other relatives found temporary housing nearby. But being displaced didn’t keep Carol, a retired accountant, from volunteering at the local library and community garden, or from delivering meals to seniors in need.
Shown: TOH home builder Charlie Silva and host Kevin O’Connor discuss the window trim. While much of it was ravaged by fire and water, the plan is to match the new trim to the original.
When TOH arrived on the scene, Carol was still slogging her way through the insurance-claims process to determine her budget. The contractor who handled the early demo had dropped out of the project after permit delays were made worse by the pandemic.
Following a complete inspection, Charlie started to grasp the true scope of work, starting with abating the asbestos that was found throughout the house. Then he called in an outfit to address the lingering smoky odor by treating the charred structure left in place with a dry-ice application commonly used in mold remediation.
Shown: Each floor of the triple-decker features a built-in oak hutch with leaded-glass doors.
That initial work pushed the project into gut-renovation territory at the back of the house, where most walls were taken down to the studs. Preserving the original floor plan, the TOH team will install new appliances in each apartment, while damaged cabinets and windows will be replaced. The crew will also upgrade the bathrooms and laundry areas. Outside, the plan calls for rebuilding the rear porches and staircase, replacing the vinyl siding around the whole house, and adding a fresh coat of paint on the trim. There’s just enough room in the budget for TOH landscape contractor Jenn Nawada to put in a brick patio out back and bring in some ornamental plants and shrubs, now that a dead tree has been removed and some general cleanup done.
Shown: Richard Trethewey and plumber Ronnette Taylor, a fire protection specialist, talk shop in one of the baths. Besides bringing the plumbing up to code and adding new fixtures, Taylor will install a cost-effective sprinkler system that provides 20 minutes of lifesaving water via a tank-and-pump set up in the basement.
On the systems front, the plumbing, HVAC, and wiring will be brought up to code. A new hydro-air system, so-called because it combines a boiler with individual air handlers, will deliver hot water, heat, and air-conditioning to each level. Blowers in the handlers send air over coils, hot or cold depending on the season, and then into living spaces through flexible ductwork. “Between the insulation and the new high-efficiency heating and hot-water system, we’re going to cut Carol’s operating expenses in half,” says TOH plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey.
Shown: The view from the top: the fire-damaged back stairwell stripped down to a skeleton.
Even as the crew modernizes the triple-decker, TOH is mindful of the building’s history. “I love what we discovered as we opened it up,” says Richard—including an insulated icebox at each level of the house, complete with galvanized metal drains to handle runoff from the melting ice.
Shown: Remnants of old knob-and-tube wiring were revealed when the damaged plaster and lath were stripped away.
Preserving as much as possible of the building’s original features is top of mind for the crew; the built-in hutches and stained-glass windows on each floor are high on the list, as are the hand-carved finials on the roof corbels outside.
Shown: The stacked back porches on Carol’s house as seen from the driveway; rebuilding is well underway at her next-door neighbors’ house.
There’s much to be done. Luckily, there are many hands to make it happen. “It’s a heavy lift, but we’re ready,” says Charlie. “I told all our subs, who we’ve worked with forever, ‘Do whatever you can at the best possible price.’ We need to get Carol and her family back in their home. And everyone is stepping up to the plate to help this family out.”
Shown left: Each level has a mantel, though there is no evidence that the house had fireplaces. Hot air came through a vent behind this decorative grille by way of old ductwork, which was removed during the asbestos abatement process. The elegant mantel and mirrored overmantel remain.
Shown right: Fire melted the vinyl siding on one side of the building, at the rear, exposing a patchwork of asphalt shingles, a siding material commonly used in the area.
Though built for families of modest means, the 1905 three-decker holds plenty of gracious details, including this decorative door hardware, now enrobed in layers of paint.
On a rain-soaked day, Carol and TOH landscape contractor Jenn Nawada do what landscaping planning they can from the dry interior of the first-floor kitchen.
Each of the three levels has a stained-glass window in the dining room, surrounded by a graceful casing.
Left: The handsome front staircase was untouched by the fire; the plaster walls will be repaired and painted.
Right: The view from the third-floor hallway toward the front, showing off the paneled entry door.
The Rise of the Three-Decker
This uniquely Boston housing style, which dates back to colonial times, continues to have appeal.
While “as Boston as a Dorchester three-decker” isn’t a saying yet, it might be by the time This Old House finishes its next project. Like baked beans and Fenway Park’s Green Monster, the housing style is a symbol of the city, and of Dorchester in particular.
The first three-deckers were built in Boston in the 1870s, during the post–Civil War construction boom. However, the origins of the style can be traced back to colonial times and the wood-building traditions brought over by English settlers.
By 1900, this house style had become the standard form for speculative builders who were developing new neighborhoods throughout Boston. The goal was to give families of modest means a lofty, suburban experience—private yards, large living spaces, and, in time, driveways—all with easy access to city jobs using nearby railroads.
Shown above: All the triple-deckers in this row in Dorchester were built in 1914. While three of the five have been converted to condos, they boast many original details, including decorative cornice work.
Dorchester ended up with 5,250 three-deckers built between 1890 and 1930, when the Depression stamped out all home building, according to Arthur Krim, an architectural historian who did a survey of the style for the Boston Landmarks Commission. Thousands more popped up in places like Worcester, Fitchburg, and New Bedford, “each with unique architectural details, like turtles of the Galápagos Islands,” says Krim. Some had mansard-style roofs, others had flat or gabled.
The porches might be supported by elegant Doric columns or simple square posts borrowed from the American Craftsman movement. Early examples were often ornamented with accents from the Queen Anne style of the day, like patterned shingles and iron-crested towers. These decorative flourishes were scaled back after the start of World War I, leading to the simple, geometric form of many later homes. The 1905 project house’s roofline, corbels, and fluted columns are consistent with details commonly found on the homes built at that time.
Whatever their exteriors, three-deckers always held the same space-efficient floor plan: a stack of apartments with living areas up front, bedrooms in the middle, and the kitchen and bathroom in the back. Owners typically occupied the middle floor and often rented the others to relatives.
Today, some three-deckers still serve families, though many have been converted into condos. Luckily, they have mostly escaped the wrecking ball thanks to zoning laws that would prevent developers from building as many units on the same footprint. And their good bones have made them desirable to a whole new generation of city dwellers.