An Ode to the Forgotten Quonset : Anniversary: The corrugated metal hut turned 50 this summer. But the ‘fabulous example of American ingenuity’ will go unfeted.
In a dark corner of the Naval Construction Battalion Museum in Port Hueneme, two metal models stand uncelebrated and undecorated. They are Quonsets, and this should have been their year.
The Quonset hut, shelter to the soldier, refuge for the frugal landowner and fixture on this nation’s architectural landscape, turned 50 this summer. And to mark the corrugated metal structure’s golden anniversary, military leaders, housing officials and architecture experts from California to Washington have planned . . .
Nothing at the Virginia research office of the Army Corps of Engineers, where historian Martin K. Gordon confesses that “the Quonset hut hasn’t really leaped to mind.”
Nothing at the Great Lakes Steel Corp. in Detroit, which once led the world in Quonset production.
And nothing at the National Building Museum in Washington, although curator David Chase offers condolences.
The Quonset hut is “a fabulous example of American ingenuity and can-do spirit and productive power,” says Chase, who will include a hut in a World War II exhibit planned for 1993 or 1994. “It’s an example of what this nation can achieve when it gets its ducks in a row.”
Committed Quonset people, when you can find them, say these things. They talk about simplicity, utility and durability, and it’s hard to argue with them.
But Quonset people are usually a quiet minority. No wonder. Their building of choice has become the Gerald Ford of American architecture: unique in history yet derided, ignored and forgotten by millions.
The Port Hueneme museum at least offers a glimpse of Quonset culture. There is the museum building itself, a Quonset-based hybrid that dates to 1947 or before. There are those two models, and above them there’s a 1944 Navy Quonset construction manual.
“It’s not the sexiest exhibit,” says museum director Vincent A. Transano. But you can’t commemorate the Navy’s builders without a mention of Quonset huts.
And once you start looking, you can’t go far without sighting another Quonset.
Within a few miles of the museum’s doors, there are the main exhibit buildings of the Ventura County Fairgrounds, a pair of former Quonset structures that once were military hangars. Next door to the Oxnard Airport, there’s a jumbo-sized Quonset, idle and rusting, that once held a tropical-theme nightclub. Along the road from Ventura to Ojai, there’s the Quality Muffler Shop, a sky-blue arch guarded by a chocolate Labrador named Cherokee.
“It used to be a military barracks, I guess,” says Clay Mullis, owner of Cherokee and Quality Muffler. “I talked to one guy who said this building was built for the Philippines, that it would withstand a 200 mile-an-hour wind. I believe it. It’s a good building. I’d like to have another one and just bolt it onto the end.”
So it goes across the country. Churches, banks, theaters, offices, barns, schools, homes, bowling alleys. A nation’s face forever changed, a sprawling story largely untold: the Quonset story.
Meet Rob Brokaw, Quonset person.
Brokaw, 32 , co-owner of the Brokaw Nursery in Ventura, has lived in a Quonset hut, with his espresso machine, for the last five years. “It’s the same Quonset hut that I lived in from ages 0 to 5,” he says. There were five in the family, and the structure came along with the one-acre site of his father’s first nursery in El Rio.
“I paid rent in Ventura for a time, and we still had this property. And it dawned on me one day that it would make affordable . . . housing for me.”
Advantages: “Price.” Also, “I suspect that it’s an excellent structure to be in in an earthquake.”
Disadvantages: “The Masonite walls, which are thin and have holes easily knocked in them.” Also, “the internal walls are angled, which makes hanging things on them a challenge.” And when the weather changes, “the hut tends to ping and pop a lot, like a motor will when it’s cooling down.”
Spring, 1941. In an Accrington, England, laboratory, British scientists were discovering polyester fiber. In the South Pacific, Navy researchers were about to invent the aerosol spray can to dispense insecticide.
And on the west shore of Naragansett Bay in Rhode Island, a team of Navy officials and civilian contractors set out to devise a portable, durable, adaptable structure for the Allies in World War II.
It took just under three months--an extraordinary example of engineering against deadline. But there was this problem of uncertain ancestry.
By all accounts, the British Nissen hut, a similarly shaped military structure, served as inspiration. But by some accounts, the original inspiration should be traced to the cylindrical “long houses” devised by the Narragansett Indians at least 300 years before.
That’s not the only point of contention. In an obituary, the New York Times gave principal design credit to Peter Dejongh, an engineer for the George A. Fuller Co. But others have said that Otto Brandenberger, another Fuller employee, was the team’s only architect and deserved the credit.
The Quonset’s name, at least, is an open-and-shut case. Most development work was done at Quonset Point Naval Air Station, R.I. The first huts were shipped from there in June, 1941.
When the United States entered the war six months later, the Quonset went into mass production like no other structure in architectural history. Huts were shipped to Africa, Guam and Newfoundland. Most versions were 20 feet by 48 feet. Larger models, many of them 40 feet by 100 feet, could be combined for extra-large warehouses.
Between 1941 and 1946, the Navy made or bought more than 160,000 Quonset structures--screened huts for the South Pacific, insulated huts for Northern Europe. Huts for storage, for mess halls, for hospitals, for latrines. The Army used them, too.
“The arch structure is really great. It carries a lot of weight and you can put it up quickly,” says museum director Transano. “But the problem is, if you have square things to put up, as you approach the ceiling, you begin losing space.”
Meet Jerry Perry, Quonset person.
“I’ve put up a lot of them, took down a lot of them and lived in a lot of them,” says Perry, who served 20 years with the Navy SeaBees. “It was something fast and very simple. They came in kits, with tools. You just unpacked them and put them up.”
Perry is a district supervisor for Ventura County’s building and safety department . He says he’d approve a new Quonset as long as it met government engineering standards. He’s less certain what zoning officials would do, but it hardly matters because he can’t think of any new Quonset construction in at least eight years.
You can’t find Quonsets in the Yellow Pages, you can’t find a builder who sells them, and when you scan the county, says Perry, “you see less and less of them.”
Fashion--even military fashion--is fickle.
By 1946, Quonsets were being shipped stateside to relieve housing shortages faced by returning veterans. In Los Angeles, thousands of veterans and their families landed in Quonset villages, paying $27 a month for two bedrooms and a bath. But Navy procurers were already casting their eyes upon another prefabricated structure.
The Butler building, another product of civilian contractors, had more corners, fewer curves, and hence clear storage superiority over the Quonset. Soon, Navy orders were going out for Butlers instead of Quonsets. And the Great Lakes Steel Corp. was peddling its Quonsets in the Saturday Evening Post. For instance:
* There’s just no limit to how handsome a Quonset can be!
* Look around you, America, at the clean, flowing lines of a building that’s changing your world!
* You’re in business faster and for less money with a Quonset!
But history was stacking up against the Quonset, and there was more to come.
The Greak Lakes Steel Corp. moved its Quonset-making subsidiary to Terre Haute, Ind., then to Houston, then sold it. The Quonset Point Naval Air Station was declared “expendable.”
It was 1976 when Rhode Island officials asked federal officials to add a new site to the National Register of Historic Places: a batch of 17 first-generation Quonsets in the old Quonset Point neighborhood. For two years, there was no decision.
When the state finally got its way and the Quonset got a place on the historic register, a local newspaper sent out a reporter to deliver the word to port workers near the rusty old buildings.
Upon hearing the news, one man is said to have laughed for a full 30 seconds, then called out to a co-worker:
“Henry! You’re not going to believe this!”
Meet Kevin and Sue Anderson, Quonset people.
Kevin, 38, works for Northrop Corp. Sue, also 38, teaches job skills to developmentally disabled students. For the length of their 14-year marriage, they’ve lived in a two-bedroom Quonset hut that Kevin’s father bought from the Navy in about 1948.
Their hut, warmed by a propane heater, sits in Newbury Park on property the Anderson family has held for decades. The exterior is festooned with flowers, and a sun-bleached steer skull hangs above the front door. Framed Kandinsky and Rothko prints adorn the inside walls, along with stencil decorations applied by Sue Anderson. Says she:
“We’ve had people stop and leave notes saying, ‘Can we please, please come in?’ ”
Some former servicemen, Kevin Anderson notes, have been less enthusiastic. His answer for them and other skeptics: “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. In homes they’re building now, there’s water rushing in the roof, cracks in the slab and all the rest.”
The Andersons claim no such problems and plan to put up a white picket fence soon.
Who can deny the Quonset hut’s place in history?
Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, devised well before the Quonset, won its inventor a reputation as a visionary genius. But are there as many domes on this planet today as there are Quonsets?
Writer Tim Clark, pondering the Quonset in Yankee magazine, has suggested that it “may be the most common and widespread single structure in the world.”
Architectural historian David Gebhard, looking from an aesthetic point of view, opines that “you really have to connect it to modernism.”
Gebhard, a UC Santa Barbara professor, notes that in the 1920s, architects like Walter Gropius and Charles-Edouard Le Corbusier were already using prefabricated materials and stark, curvilinear forms on a large scale. So were the leaders of the Art Deco movement.
But once the Quonset went worldwide, Gebhard says, the design joined popular culture and changed the vocabulary of architecture. In Alameda County, architect Bruce Goff devised a Quonset church. On Long Island, artist Robert Motherwell commissioned his own steel-and-glass Quonset.
In auditoriums and convention centers beyond count, the Quonset’s influence endures. On military bases around the world, limited budgets keep the antiquated structures in use. And then there are all those old huts and the Quonset people in them.
“It is a fascinating tale,” says Gebhard. “Eventually, if I can find a graduate student with an interest in it, I’ll sic him on it.”
Memo to future graduate students of David Gebhard:
Don’t neglect the Michigan elections of 1948. In half a century of under-appreciated Quonset history, that year’s race for the 5th District congressional seat may stand up as the structure’s only peacetime public relations triumph.
With patriotism high and World War II fresh in voters’ memories, a 35-year-old political novice put his campaign headquarters in a leftover Quonset hut. His name emblazoned on the corrugated metal sides, he charged to victory over a four-term incumbent. Then he held the seat for more than two decades.
And then he rose to become President of the United States.
Of course. Gerald R. Ford Jr., Quonset person.