Hartford Courant | December 21, 2008 | Download PDF
Like giant tin cans lying on their side, corrugated steel Quonset huts are startling structures on Connecticut’s tradition-bound landscape. Introduced as portable, temporary, all-purpose buildings during World War II, they have had remarkable staying power, attesting to their strength and adaptability.
Though not common, Quonset huts ranging from the decaying military-surplus models used for storage at Goodspeed Airport in East Haddam to the shiny modern ones at the Barkhamsted Highway garage dot Connecticut’s hills and valleys. Marrying modern industrial materials and prefabrication technology to the semi-circle design of ancient Indian longhouses framed with saplings and clad in bark, their combination of Yankee manufacturing ingenuity and native form makes them more suitable to our countryside than may be thought at first blush.
Starkly industrial-looking and utilitarian, it’s not surprising to find a large Quonset hut garaging delivery trucks at Brooks Oil in Bristol or to see them serving as barns or sheds on farms. Those in agricultural use are as diverse as the huge, double-arch hut clustered among other structures at a farmstead straddling the Durham-Guilford line on Route 177 and the small, simple half-pipe used at the edge of fields on Gallup Road in Voluntown. Storage is perhaps the most common contemporary use for the huts, so it’s little wonder to find them serving that purpose at both Peoples and Shenipsit State Forests.
Despite their raw functionality, Connecticut’s Quonsets are used even by businesses where appearance matters—like restaurants. The aptly named Half Keg Tavern, whose bulkhead has been modified with vertical barn-board and a picture window, is a workingman’s bar in a rugged section of New London. By contrast, a large Quonset near the Guilford Green houses Café Grounded, an upscale eatery styling itself “the coolest little café on the CT Shoreline,” as well as a couple of shops selling artwork and handicrafts. The hut’s original corrugated exterior is concealed beneath a standing-seam metal covering.
Though barracks and temporary post-War housing (including at prestigious universities like Yale) were among the most common original uses for Quonsets, making a home of a structure where raindrops ping loudly and curved walls make hanging a picture challenging is not for everyone; nevertheless, some are still used today as residences. Two with shed dormer windows squat close to Route 81 in a developing rural area of Haddam, while another pair lies along Howd Avenue, a short and narrow street of otherwise conventional houses in Branford’s Stony Creek section. Quonset houses are often fitted with homey touches like awnings and porches with railings, or have large additions attached.
Based upon a World War I design by Lieutenant Colonel Peter Nissen of the British Royal Engineers, the modern Quonset hut was developed by the U.S. Navy at Quonset Point, Rhode Island at the outset of the nation’s entry into World War II. Under the direction of Otto Brandenberger, an architect with the firm building the local naval base, the Nissen hut was improved upon with better insulation and interior layouts and simplified construction. The name “Quonset,” a Native American term meaning “long place,” was officially given to the hut on July 18, 1941 by the Navy to avoid confusion with the British design.
About 153,000 of these half-circle, steel-ribbed structures covered with sheet metal were built for the conflict, shipped in pieces, and erected around the world from the arctic to the tropics. One writer dubbed them “weapons of mass construction” for their critical role in the war effort.
There were three original designs, ranging in size from 320 to 1,440 square feet, and over 86 sanctioned uses, with interior variations tailored for housing, offices, barber and butcher shops, hospital wards, laundries, chapels, mess halls and myriad other uses. When finally perfected, ten men could set one up in a day. After the war, used huts were sold as surplus, but new ones continued to be manufactured for uses ranging from theaters to supermarkets. They are still being made today
Perhaps the state’s largest collection of Quonsets is a battered cluster of seven on Route 322 in the Milldale area of Southington at the corner of Clark Street. One hut has a bay door in the bulkhead and serves as an auto detailing shop; another, with a centered pedestrian door framed by double-hung windows, and a third with a boxy front addition constructed of T111 siding, are home to small manufacturing concerns.
The remainder, all in various states of disrepair, serve as storage. Walking among them is a step back in time. Though built to be cheap, versatile and temporary, Quonsets have proved enduring. Their technology finds contemporary expression in a variety of prefabricated metal structures that serve as factories, stores, churches, and sports arenas. Their shape is reproduced in increasingly common hoop greenhouses. Whatever their architectural merit, they will always be endearing as symbols of America’s can-do ingenuity, industrial prowess, and victory in the worst conflict the planet has ever known.