By Anne Fredrickson
"Draw a picture of a house," the big sister instructed the younger one, and the little girl's sketch was remarkably accurate. Her drawing was not the predictable A-frame with requisite chimney and smoke, but a squat, domed structure with striped siding. It was Alaska in the 1960s, and the girl was drawing her idea of the typical family home: a Quonset hut. This story, along with oral histories, essays, artifacts, and photographs, has been collected in Quonset: Metal Living for a Modern Age. In addition to the book, the NEH-supported project includes a Web site and an exhibition now on display at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.
During the housing crunch of the late 1940s, thousands of people across the nation converted these surplus military huts into unconventional homes, churches, and restaurants. Today, the Quonset has largely vanished from most of the American landscape--and most people's memory.
Chris Chiei, director of the Alaska Design Forum, is not alarmed by the disappearance. Quonsets were "designed to be temporary," he says. But Chiei, project director and coauthor of the book, was taken aback when he learned that nothing had been done to document the hut's brief but crucial role in American history. To change that, Chiei spent eight years searching through archives, museums, and Google to study the building.
Chiei hopes that his work on Quonsets will "properly put them in a context of architectural history and culture, U.S. history and culture." The story is a complex one, weaving together art, architecture, and anthropology and reaching into many different ways of life.
In March 1941, faced with sending a large number of troops abroad, the U.S. Navy commissioned an engineering team at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, to design light, portable, and inexpensive barracks. By October, the designs for the Quonset, which means "long place" in the language of the Narrangansett tribe, were finalized. Based roughly on the British Nissen hut, the popular temporary shelter used in World War I, the Quonset capitalized on pre-fabrication--all of its parts were manufactured prior to shipping--and the development of a lightweight, residential steel.
At times described as "a half piece of pipe chopped off at convenient lengths" and "a pop can lying on its side," the huts consist of a curved steel frame over which corrugated metal sheets are laid. What was especially revolutionary about the building was the simplicity of its design. With eight men, none of whom needed special expertise, the Quonset could be put up or taken down in one day.
When U.S. troops deployed after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the demand for Quonsets grew quickly. By 1945, Chiei reports, 120,000 units had been shipped to almost every corner of the world. More than a quarter of them went to Alaska, which became an important operations center for the fight in the Pacific.
The federal government poured $3 million into Alaska during World War II, writes cultural historian Steven Haycox, who contributed to Quonset. New funding attracted soldiers and civilian workers. It also changed the Alaskan skyline, which was soon dotted with Quonsets meant to house the new arrivals temporarily.
By the end of the war, housing shortages were acute throughout the country. Although Stan-Steel, the company that manufactured the Quonset, had been promoting the hut's "flexibility for the industries of tomorrow" as early as 1943, it was only after the war that Quonsets became widely seen as a housing option. Tom Vanderbilt, a collaborator on Quonset, reports that when a New York military base announced the public sale of eight hundred and eleven surplus Quonset huts in July 1946, thousands camped outside the site for days beforehand in order to secure one of the units for $295.
Housing sales like these sprung more from desperation than veneration. Despite Stan-Steel's barrage of promotional Quonset advertising, most Americans never saw the building as anything but a stopgap solution on the way to a "real" home. Unable to shake its wartime associations, the Quonset, says architectural historian Jeffrey Cook, was "one of the most . . . hated prefab systems of the twentieth century." And as prefabrication techniques spread to the production lines of traditional-looking housing, Quonsets were largely abandoned for homes that more closely modeled the American dream.
But Alaska took to Quonsets; the huts became common buildings for homes, restaurants, chapels, and even schools. Chiei says that the Quonset seemed to embody the resourceful character of Alaska, a place where "what we get, we tend to hang on to." Although housing kits did replace the Quonset as the preferred prefab structure, it was a gradual transition. Many families still lived in Quonsets in the 1960s and 1970s, and a small number of Alaskans continue to use the hut as a space for life and work. One such enthusiast is Rose Cobis, who has lived in her Quonset hut on Kodiak Island for more than thirty years. "There is something mystical about living in a round house," she told the Anchorage Daily News.
Fans like Cobis notwithstanding, it was the shape of the building, says Chiei, that caused the majority of Quonset-dwellers to find new lodgings. "Because of its strong geometric form, it does somewhat dictate the way that you live," he says.
Its simple lines, open space, and self-supporting structure brought the Quonset acceptance within the Modernist architectural movement, attracting the attention of architects Bruce Goff and Charles Eames. Goff expanded upon the Quonset form in the 1947 Ruth Ford House, which has a large central dome, obviously inspired by the Quonset, as the main living space for the house.
Though Goff's incorporation of the Quonset into his designs was considered avant-garde, the hut, along with other wartime prefab structures, has since had great conceptual influence. "There's such an interest in prefabricated architecture right now," says Chiei. Festo Corporate Design in Germany has developed a house supported by inflated air chambers that can be deflated and packed into a forty-foot box. The Austrian architect Oskar Leo Kaufman recently unveiled FRED, a block-like home that can be constructed in two hours.
So was the Quonset ahead of its time? Perhaps, says Chiei. The book and exhibition make an elegy for the little hut, a respectful acknowledgment of its service in times of need. After all, says Chiei, with a temporary building like the Quonset, "part of the design is letting it go."