The Postwar Quonset Era

From: Quonset Hut: Metal Living for a Modern Age, ed. by Julie Decker and Chris Chiei (Princeton Architectural Press, 2005), pp. 84-87, 93-94:

The Quonset form [called kamaboko-gata in Japanese] rippled throughout postwar visual culture. It no longer needed explaining; it had become an icon unto itself. On television shows like Gomer Pyle, USMC, the action played out on a stage set dominated by the horizontal lines and half-circle forms of the Quonset. The Marx Toy Company, creator of the Yo-Yo, released a yellow “Construction Office” Quonset toy. Sherwin Williams, playing to the evolving market, developed, in conjunction with Stran-Steel, a special paint called Quon-Kote, whose can was festooned with rows of Quonsets. “Quon-Kote dresses up your Quonset, gives it a trim, well-kept look that is an important business asset.” One can even find a lasting example of the Quonset influence, oddly enough, in an engineering textbook, where the Quonset was pictured with a halo of arrows and numbers. The typical exercise posited the situation thus: “You are to design Quonset huts for a military base in the Mideast. The design windspeed is 100 ft/s.” Problem-solving questions included, “What is the net drag force acting on the Quonset hut?”

The Quonset seemed ubiquitous in any sector of public life; indeed, it even played a part as ideal fallout shelters in proving-grounds tests and elsewhere (e.g., in Palm Beach, Florida, a buried Quonset-type structure served as a temporary shelter for the vacation home of President Kennedy) as postwar peace and optimism were quickly overshadowed by the threat of atomic war. Indeed, Quonsetlike structures, designed by entrepreneurs like Nebraska’s Walt Behlen, were even submitted to test atomic explosions at the proving grounds in Nevada. Civil defense officials were intrigued by the domelike profile for the same reasons as engineers—the way the wind, or the force of an atomic blast, moved across its surface.

On college campuses, where enrollment had soared as returning veterans took advantage of the GI Bill, Quonsets mushroomed as temporary classrooms and student housing. “It was a lifesaver for all of us because housing prices in New Haven were out of sight,” one veteran told Yankee Magazine. “We had to wait three semesters to get a Quonset hut.” In Kalamazoo, Indiana, the Quonset community was referred to as a “genteel slum”—one veteran remembered the walls being so thin he could hear his neighbor asking for bread. Another Quonset resident recalled the instant neighborly bonhomie that seemed to arrive with the huts. “We enjoyed our neighbors, had people to dinner and sherry parties, and a lot of drop-in visitors from the campus and from the neighboring college where I was still teaching … We tackled the insufficiencies with enthusiasm.” Bernard Malamud was said to have written a number of his short stories in a Quonset at Oregon State University in 1948. The writer Lewis Lapham’s recollections of a job interview with the Central Intelligence Agency a year out of college involved a Quonset: “The interview took place in one of the Quonset huts near the Lincoln Memorial that had served as the Agency’s temporary headquarters during World War II. The military design of a building hastily assembled for an urgent purpose imparted an air of understated glory, an effect consciously reflected in the studied carelessness of the young men asking the questions.” …

In 1948, a young political neophyte named Gerald Ford set up his congressional campaign headquarters in a Quonset (emblazoned with his portrait) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. … Foreshadowing Bill Gates’ garage founding of Microsoft, engineer William Bradford Shockley, in 1955, set up his fledgling and pioneering semiconductor company—the creative spark that ignited what would become Silicon Valley—in a Quonset in California, near Palo Alto. In 1947, a food company salesman named Jeno Paulucci opened his novel business—what would become the Chinese food giant Chun-King—in a Quonset near Duluth, Minnesota. Great Lakes actively pitched such uses. “You’re in business Faster and for Less money with a Quonset.”

1 Comment

Filed under democracy, economics, education, migration, U.S.

One response to “The Postwar Quonset Era

  1. Canehan

    They were widespread in Europe, too. I vividly remember a Quonset hut at the Dutch Zandvoort autoracing track, which housed the press during a Formula 1 Grand Prix in the early 1970s. It was very hot (for Europe) outside, and in the hut it was boiling, as we slogged away at our portables (typewriters, that is, not laptops). I called in the president of the autoracing federation and he raised a storm with the organisers, leading to a civilized press room at the race the following year – or, he had warned, no race.

    There were of course many in the UK from wartime use, mainly at Army and Royal Air Force bases, not suprisingly, because, as Wikipedia notes: “The design was based on the [smaller] Nissen hut developed by the British during World War I.”

    What are said to be the two last surviving Nissen huts, now extrensively restored and updated, are at a former RAF base :

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