The Instant Building
SIMPLE TO MANUFACTURE AND EASY TO assemble, the Quonset hut outlasted the war for which it was built
ALTHOUGH IT’S NEVER GOTTEN NEARLY AS much glory, the humble Quonset hut was the architectural equivalent of the jeep in World War II. Like the jeep, it was simple, rugged, versatile, and easy to manufacture; and like the jeep, it was a ubiquitous part of the scenery for American servicemen both during the war and after they got home.
A team of designers developed the utilitarian barrel-backed hut at Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island—hence the name. The leaders of the team were Peter Dejongh, an engineer, and Otto Brandenberger, an architect. Both worked for the George A. Fuller Company, a big New York City construction firm.
With America preparing for the possibility of war, the Navy approached Fuller in late March 1941 and asked the company to design a prefabricated, portable structure that could be shipped in pieces to faraway military outposts and set up easily and quickly by untrained personnel. Full- er was also commissioned to build a factory to manufacture the structures. The kicker was that everything had to be ready within two months. The company threw up a sprawling plant near Davisville, Rhode Island, in thirty days while still working out the design. Quonset huts began rolling out the factory door well before the twomonth deadline.
The Quonset hut bore a close resemblance to the Nissen hut, which the British had developed for World War I and still used in the early part of World War II. Conceived by the British mining engineer Lt. Col. Peter N. Nissen, the Nissen hut served basically the same function as the Quonset, but in much more Spartan fashion. Most Nissen huts had dirt or concrete floors and no insulation. They were essentially an updated version of the Iroquois council lodge, with steel ribs instead of wooden poles and sheet metal in place of animal skins.
While it is unlikely that Lieutenant Colonel Nissen actually had the Iroquois council lodge in mind, it is a matter of record that Dejongh and Brandenberger were given plans for the Nissen hut at the start of their assignment. They found its basic shape and structure adequate but made so many changes and improvements that they ended up virtually starting from scratch. Like the Nissen hut, the Quonset had curved sheet-metal outer walls attached to a frame of semicircular steel ribs. The Fuller team’s innovations, though, made it a much more pleasant place to live and work in. The Quonset hut came with a one-inch tonguein-groove plywood floor supported on a raised metal framework, wood-fiber insulation between the outer shell and an inner lining of Masonite (pressed wood), and provisions for doors, windows, and chimneys. Fuller shipped the first Quonset huts to Britain under Lend-Lease in June 1941. The Fuller factory couldn’t build them fast enough, so the Navy soon let out a second contract to Stran-Steel, a division of the Great Lakes Steel Corporation of Detroit. Stran-Steel soon took over the bulk of the production.
The Fuller-designed huts used arched T-section steel ribs and corrugated-steel outer skins, which fastened to the ribs with nuts and bolts. Stran-Steel came up with a faster, cheaper way to assemble huts in the field. The innovation involved a rib made of two mirror-image U-shaped steel stampings welded back to back. The mating surfaces of the ribs were shaped in such a way that the welds left a narrow gap between the stampings. The gap, if you looked down into it, had the shape of a stretchedout W .
Why exchange the simple T shape for slotted ribs with gaps? So that instead of fiddling with nuts and bolts, GIs could simply drive nails through the galvanized outer wall of the hut and into the ribs. The W-bends held the nails more tightly than wood. Stran-Steel’s idea was to make the Quonset hut so simple that anyone who could hammer a nail could set it up. It still used a few nuts and bolts, but they were mostly square-headed types that tightened with pliers and a crescent wrench. A team of ten Seabees could put up the typical twenty-foot Quonset hut in a day.
The earliest Fuller-built Quonset huts had a sixteen-by-thirty-six-foot floor. After Stran-Steel became involved, they were produced in two basic sizes: the 20 and the 40. The 20 measured twenty by forty-eight feet, while the 40, also called the Elephant Hut, stood forty feet wide by a hundred feet long. Often several Quonsets were joined end to end or set side by side. The largest wartime assemblage of huts was said to have been a 54,000-square-foot warehouse on Guam called the Multiple Mae West.
In addition to the two basic sizes, the Navy had northern, southern, and tropical designs. The northern design came with two five-panel wooden end plates, or bulkheads. Each had a central door, two shatterproof windows, and a louvered air vent. This design saw service from Greenland to the Mediterranean. The southern design had bug screens on both ends, while the tropical design had screened bulkheads, a raised roof for ventilation, and extra vent flaps along the lower sides.
The Quonset 20 could house twenty-five men in moderate comfort, but it was often used for other purposes, everything from mess hall to repair garage to field office. The 40 was mostly used for storage, although some served as field hospitals, recreation centers, shops, and industrial buildings. The standard 20 was shipped knocked down in twelve large wooden crates and weighed about 7,000 pounds. Surprisingly, the Quonset 20 took up less shipping space than a twenty-fiveman barracks tent with wooden flooring.
An estimated 170,000 Quonset huts were built around the world during World War II. The ones in battle zones were often banked with five or more feet of earth to protect soldiers against bomb explosions. Even naked, though, Quonsets were tough. In an Iceland harbor late in 1941, a gale “crumpled PBY’s on the beach like paper hats and ripped the covering completely off many of the British Nissen huts” but “left the Quonset huts practically undamaged,” according to the admittedly biased testimony of a Fuller company brochure.
Most of the huts were painted with an olive drab camouflage finish, and from 1943 until the fall of 1944, the 20 came with four-foot overhangs at each end that protected its bulkheads from driving rain and sunlight. In Panama the U.S. Marines ran tests that found that on very hot days Quonset huts were about four degrees cooler than conventional housing.
After the war a number of Navy-surplus Quonset huts found their way into civilian life, and Stran-Steel continued to manufacture new ones. The federal Public Housing Authority promoted Quonset huts to ease the severe postwar housing shortage. New York City set them up in Brooklyn’s Canarsie Beach Park and planned to erect other small Quonset suburbs nearby.
Many entrepreneurs, including a number of former Seabees, became Quonset-hut dealers and distributors. The most famous of these was Waldvogel Brothers in New York City. In 1946 you could buy a Quonset 20 for $1,048 and a 40 for $3,436 plus shipping, after which you needed only to find a suitable lot in an area with permissive zoning laws. Stran-Steel advertised its huts as single-family houses, with little entryways and dormers attached. But despite the housing short- age, Quonset huts never became popular as homes. Not only did they remind veterans too much of service life, but the Quonset 20, with a mere 960 square feet of floor space—a good part of it unusable because of the sloping sides—was too small for a family. (Stran-Steel advertised Quonset houses as small as 20 by 36 feet.) By contrast, the 40, at 4,000 square feet, looked and felt like a small airplane hangar.
THE HUTS DID WORK WELL FOR OTHER POST war uses. Stran-Steel issued a press release in late 1946 listing 257 adaptations. Universities and colleges proved to be the firm’s best customers. Michigan State College, for example, set up seventy-five Quonset huts to house veterans studying under the GI Bill, and Quonsets remain on a number of campuses to this day. A Quonset-hut department store went up in Dryden, New York, and an Elephant Hut became a grocery market in Greenville, Michigan. Quonset movie houses sprang up from San Andreas, California, to Millville, Pennsylvania. Farmers found that two-story 40s made excellent hay barns, while smaller models could easily be converted into milking sheds. Many churches, chapels, repair shops, and small businesses likewise discovered Quonsets, often hiding the buildings’ round shoulders behind false fronts.
A few Quonsets went respectable. The architect Philip Harmer chose a large one as the basis for the Altona Meadows/La verton Uniting Church in suburban Melbourne, Australia. The Daniel House, a residence in Knoxville, Tennessee, designed by James W. Fitzgibbon, “siamesed” two Quonset huts, one slightly above the other on a hillside. In 1947 the French architect Pierre Chareau, who in 1932 had designed the Maison de Verre (a public housing project) in Paris, built a Quonset studio on Long Island for the artist Robert Motherwell. Another architect, Bruce Goff, who had served in a Navy construction battalion, built a modernistic chapel out of three Quonset huts at Camp Parks, California, in 1945. And the Newell Beatty family built a handsome and practical two-bedroom house out of a Quonset 20 in Berkeley, California, in 1946.
You can probably still see a few fifty-year-old Quonset huts in your community, just as you may occasionally see an old military jeep on the highway. Some old soldiers do indeed never die.