Monday, August 26, 2013

Vernacular Housing in Montreal ..The Three-Decker

Close up view of stairs, landings, and balconies, the vernacular language of
 the city.

Recently I went on a short trip to Montreal.  It is a beautiful city, and one of its charms is this type of vernacular housing.  It is a type of three-decker (stacked flats) that feels a lot like a row house.  My girlfriend and I decided to forego the hotel experience and try AirBNB. We got a room in one of these three-deckers in the Mile End neighborhood with a balcony overlooking the street.  Montreal is a low-rise city and even from the third floor we could see several miles to the church towers of the old town.  It was a wonderful experience.  I have never been on a trip where I spent a lot of time in the hotel room, but when your room is on a vibrant residential street and has a balcony with a view of the city, it changes the equation.  We enjoyed several bottles of wine and a few meals on the balcony watching life go by.  We watched the downtown fireworks on Candada Day, and watched commuters bike past over breakfast.  

Street view showing our room and balcony.

Mile End, along with many of the city’s inner neighborhoods, is made up almost entirely of three-deckers.  The neighborhood was developed extensively in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as a very dense streetcar suburb.   Streets in this area of the city are strikingly regular with buildings built relentlessly to a setback line.  Cornice lines are set within a tolerance of a few feet and facades are flat. Rarely is a street lined with trees. There is a no-nonsense quality to this area of the city that is partly a product of the need to create affordable working-class housing and partly a reflection of the city’s French heritage.  Much like New Orleans, Montreal is more embracing of European style urbanity than its Anglo counterparts.  Having come to Montreal after spending several days in Toronto, this was especially apparent.  By comparison, Toronto’s classic row houses with their bay windows and elaborate gables seem a little silly, as if they are gyrating in place in an attempt to imitate a more suburban dwelling. 

Three-deckers showing a cut-in stair landing 
A typical three-decker with external stairs and balconies

Staying in a three-decker gave me an inside look at how these buildings work.  In many respects these apartments are more like a house than what most Americans are used to. Units have an independent entrance, light on several sides of the building, a generous amount of porch space and a small yard shared by the three apartments.  The anatomy of this type consists of three stacked flats, in an L-shaped arrangement that allows light and air into every room.  Each unit has a small balcony in the front and a larger rear porch that is set in the crux of the L.  The most interesting aspect of this type is the system of vertical circulation.  The ground floor apartment is accessed directly from a small stoop while an external stair leads to the second floor apartment and a door to an internal stair that connects to the third floor unit.  Each apartment has private outdoor space in the front of the building and in the summer time these spaces are used extensively.  On the ground floor this comes in the form of a terrace that occupies the six to eight foot setback while the second and third floor have a shallow balcony opening off the living room.  This arrangement affords an independent, street-facing entrance to each unit, and generates a unique aesthetic of steel balconies, landings and stairs set against masonry facades.  On more prestigious streets these elements are an elaborate display of craftwork. 

A contemporary row of three-deckers.  Some of the minor details have 
changed, but the type remains the same.

Montreal’s neighborhoods have continued to develop without fundamentally altering the three-decker type.  The modern examples I noticed have larger windows and presumably a more open floor plan, but in most other respects are no different from their predecessors. Probably the main reason this type has persisted is that it is cheap to build and uses expensive urban land effectively (nearly twice the density of equivalently sized row houses). Small buildings are often easier to accomplish where large streams of capital are not available.  A builder can put up a three-decker without incurring a lot of debt then sell it and repeat the process on the next lot. But as economical as these buildings are, they also add up to dense, attractive neighborhoods with a very unassuming scale.  

Three-deckers create an attractive streetscape and transition seamlessly 
with small commercial buildings.