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Three-decker threat; Iconic structures placed on list for preservation.

Byline: Bronislaus B. Kush

WORCESTER - Their rectangular wooden frames began to take root in the city's seven hills during the 1800s, as thousands of immigrants poured into Worcester to become part of an ever-expanding workforce.

Today, the factories and mills that drove Worcester's economic engine during its industrial heyday, for the most part, are gone, but most of the three-deckers that the Irish, Polish, Swedish, German and other immigrant workers called "home" are still fixtures of the local urban landscape.

However, many of them have been forced into foreclosure because of the poor real estate market, and there are serious concerns that the homes will be left to decay to the point where they will be razed.

The trend is so troubling that officials at Preservation Worcester generically listed "three-deckers" on the nonprofits's 2012 register of Most Endangered Structures.

"Our hope is that people realize how bad the situation is" said Deborah Packard, PW's executive director.

Three-deckers, which also proliferated in cities such as Boston, Lynn, New Bedford, and Providence, began getting built in the second half of the 19th century and into the next to provide relatively inexpensive housing to the waves of immigrants coming here.

They were either bought by investors or by families, who would live in one unit and rent out the two others to pay off the mortgage. Generations of the same family would often live through the decades in the same house.

The three-deckers were distinguished by their boxy styles, with each floor made up of the same square footage and generally featuring the same number of rooms and layout. Each floor usually had back and front porches.

"They were well-built and provided the much-needed housing for all the immigrants coming to Worcester," said William Wallace, executive director of the Worcester Historical Museum. "They also put home ownership within the reach of the working class."

Mr. Wallace noted that, from 1825 to 1854, the city's population climbed from 3,000 to 16,000.

"These people had to live someplace," Mr. Wallace said.

From 1890 to 1900, about half of all new construction in Worcester was three-deckers. According to PW officials, most three-deckers were constructed between 1910 and 1920.

At one point, there were about 6,000 of the structures in the city. During the 1970s, a third of Worcester's population was living in three-deckers.

Three-decker construction, however, ended in the early 1930s with the economic downturn caused by the Great Depression.

Blocks of Worcester three-deckers were also leveled over the years to make way for Interstate 290, the so-called urban revitalization of the downtown in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and commercial development along Park Avenue and other major corridors.

Today, there are 4,876 three-deckers and PW officials are worried many of those will be razed. Some of those are among the 180 that were placed, during the 1970s, on the National Register of Historic Places.

A number of the foreclosed properties are now vacant and are a prime target for vandals, squatters and thieves, who have stripped many of the three-deckers of copper and other valuable construction materials.

There are also worries that the vacant buildings will eventually catch fire, either accidentally or at the hands of arsonists.

PW officials said they are even concerned about three-deckers that have been maintained and are in generally good shape.

They said that many owners of those dwellings are changing the pleasing aesthetics of the structures by enclosing porches, installing vinyl siding, and making other major alterations.

PW has published an annual list of Most Endangered Structures for 18 years.

Its purpose is to alert the public to threats to some of Worcester's oldest and historic structures.

Structures making the registry must have been built before 1962 and they must have historic, architectural and, or cultural significance.

They may be buildings, bridges, monuments, parks, burial grounds, neighborhoods or city blocks.

The structures may be threatened by neglect, demolition, alteration or deterioration over time.

A committee solicits nominations from the community and makes recommendations to PW's board of directors. There were 44 nominations this year.

Besides three-deckers, the other structures on the 2012 list are: the Worcester County Courthouse on north Main Street; the Worcester Memorial Auditorium at Lincoln Square; the Salisbury House, 61 Harvard St.; the Rufus Chase House, 114 Austin St.; the Charles Bowker House, 3 Harvard Place; the Charles Maynard House and barn, 29 Newbury St.; the Gay-McGrath House and barn, 31 Newbury St.; 40 Esther St.; the former Quinsigamond firehouse, 23 Blackstone River Road; the Odd Fellows Home, 40 Randolph Road; Bramble Hill, 757 Salisbury St.; and the Henry and Walter L. Mellen Double House and Carriage House at 41 to 43 Queen St.

Some of the 2012 structures have appeared on prior lists.

PW officials said that many of the structures listed over the years have been saved.

Last year, for example, Our Lady of Fatima Church on Belmont Street was sold to a Chinese congregation; the Junction Shops complex in Main South is scheduled to be restored into housing; and the Hooper Turret Building at Worcester State Hospital will be maintained through an agreement with the state.

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1) Three-deckers along Euclid Avenue in Worcester. Preservation Worcester has generically listed "three-deckers" on the nonprofit's 2012 register of Most Endangered Structures. (2) An MBTA train moves past three-deckers in the Shrewsbury Street neighborhood. (3) Preservation Worcester has also targeted specific buildings for protection, including the Rufus Chase House at 114 Austin St., which includes a barn at the back of the property, above.

PHOTOG: T&G Staff Photos/CHRISTINE PETERSON
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 25, 2012
Words:932
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