American Quonset After 50 years of use, the humble huts are largely forgotten

CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS. "American Quonset After
50 years of use, the humble huts are largely forgotten-except by a
few loyal fans and those who call the structures
home :[Ventura County Edition]



Author(s):

CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

Section:

Ventura County Life; PART-J;
Zones Desk

Publication
title:

Los Angeles Times (pre-1997
Fulltext). Los Angeles, Calif.: Jul 11,
1991.  pg. 10

Source
type:

Newspaper

 

(Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los
Angeles Times 1991all Rights reserved)

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 could have been their year.

The Quonset hut, shelter to the soldier, refuge for the frugal
landowner and fixture on this nation’s architectural landscape,
turns 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.

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,
though 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 may 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, and 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 at 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 is 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 just 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 served as military hangars.
Next door to the Oxnard Airport there’s a jumbo-size 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 county, and 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, the 32-year-old
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 three children 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
employee 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 Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, a
team of Navy officials and civilian contractors set to work
devising a portable, durable, adaptable structure for use by the
Allies in World War II.

It took them 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 an inspiration. But by some accounts,
the original inspiration should be traced to the cylindrical "long
houses" devised by the Narragansett Indians 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 only architect
on the team and deserved the credit.

The Quonset’s name, at least, is an open-and-shut case. Most of
the 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 a period of mass production like no other in
architectural history. Huts were shipped to Africa, Guam and
Newfoundland. Most versions were 20 by 48 feet. Larger models, many
of them 40 by 100 feet, could be combined to make 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 Transano, the museum director.
"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 with the Navy Seabees for 20 years. "It was something
fast and very simple. They came in kits, with tools. You just
unpacked them and put them up."

Perry now serves as a district supervisor for Ventura County’s
Building and Safety Department, and says he would 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,
since 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, Perry says,
"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 brand of
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!"

History was stacking up against the Quonset, and there was more
to come.

The Great 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 have 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 over
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 soon to put up a
white picket fence.

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 professor at UC Santa Barbara, notes that in the
1920s, architects such as 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 Northern California, architect Bruce Goff devised a Quonset
church. And on Long Island, artist Robert Motherwell commissioned
his own steel-and-glass Quonset.

In auditoriums and convention centers beyond counting, 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 underappreciated 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 still fresh in the
memories of many voters, a 35-year-old political novice put his
congressional campaign headquarters in a leftover Quonset hut. His
name emblazoned on the corrugated metal sides, he charged to
victory over a four-term incumbent. 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.

 

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