Magazine article Humanities

From Battlefield to Bungalow: The Adaptable Architecture of the Quonset

Magazine article Humanities

From Battlefield to Bungalow: The Adaptable Architecture of the Quonset

Article excerpt

"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 milrtary 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 prefabrication-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. …

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