Even before the formation of the Seabees in 1942, the US Military was aware that war was imminent. And to fight that war they would need a way to quickly house people and protect materiel at far-flung bases. The building needed to be inexpensive, lightweight, and portable so it could be shipped anywhere and put up quickly using hand tools.
The British had developed a light prefab structure called a Nissen Hut during WW-I. In early 1941, the US Military looked at the Nissen hut, but felt the design could be improved.
At this time at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, a new Navy base was nearing completion. Two construction companies, George A. Fuller and Company and Merritt-Chapman had been hired to build the base. In March 1941 the Military asked Peter Dejongh and Otto Brandenberger of George A. Fuller Company to design and produce a hut to US specification. And, do it within two months!
Dejongh and Brandenberger adapted the British design using corrugated steel and semi-circular steel arched ribs. The Anderson Sheet Metal Company of Providence, RI solved the technical problem of bending the corrugated sheets into a usable form. These were attached with nuts and bolts. The two ends were covered with plywood, which had doors and windows. Major improvements over the Nissan Hut were an interior Masonite (pressed wood) lining, insulation, and a one-inch tongue-in-groove plywood floor on a raised metal framework.
A production facility was quickly set up by George A. Fuller and Co. in West Davisville, not far from the Davisville Naval Base.
What would they call the structure? Captain Raymond V. Miller, Civil Engineer Corp, had concerns about patent issues with Great Britain if they used the name Nissin Hut. Since the area was known as Quonset Point (the word Quonset means "boundary" in the language of the Native American Narragansett people who once lived on the land), the new design was called a Quonset Hut.
The first hut was produced within 60 days of contract award. In fact, production began while the design was still being perfected.
The first design was semi-circular, 16 feet wide by 36 feet long and constructed out of heavy 1-inch thick steel "T" shaped steel and angle iron arches and covered in corrugated metal. Known as "T-Rib” Hut," it took a crew of 8 a day to erected one. The Seabee Museum and Memorial Park has the parts for a T-Rib Hut and at some point we hope to restore and display the original design.
In June of 1941 the Navy
made its first shipment of Quonset Huts overseas. There
was concern that since the
curve line of the sidewalls began at the floor, there
was a loss of effective width of the hut. A second
version, the "Quonset Redesigned Huts" was the same size
but included a 4 feet high vertical
sidewall (knee wall).
Production of the original T-Rib Huts was halted sometime in 1942. Thereafter all huts used Stran-Steel ribs. With the change, the Fuller factory in West Davisville was closed and production moved to Great Lakes Steel Corporation factories in the mid-west.
The Quonset Hut soon evolved into a third design to reduce shipping space and tonnage. The third design incorporated lighter, curved corrugated, galvanized sheets for covering. The arch-rib again became semi-circular with a 4-foot knee wall. The new hut was larger, 20 feet by 48 feet and lighter, using 3 ˝ tons of steel instead of 4 tons. Hut number 3 at the Museum is of this design.
Later there was a fourth design. The Navy eliminated the knee wall and returned to a full semi-circular design, 20 by 48 feet in size when it was realized that at this dimension no space was actually lost along the outer edge of the building. Huts were designed with and without dormer window. Museum huts numbers 2 and 5 are of this design.
The fifth evolution of the hut returned to the full semi-circular design and size (20 by 48 feet) but used flat corrugated siding mounted horizontally but retained the curved plates for the roof ridge. This arrangement reduced the need for special manufacturing of curved corrugated siding panels. Dormer windows were replaced by either translucent corrugated panels or flat steel framed windows.
Toward the end of 1943, 4-foot overhangs were added to the Quonset Hut to prevent driving rains and sunlight from entering the hut. These huts were 20 by 56 feet. Two years later the overhand was eliminated from huts destined for temperate locations. Museum huts 1, 6 and 8 are 1950 vintage huts of this final design.
As finally developed, the
Quonset Hut required less shipping space than did tents
with wood floors and frames, when equal numbers of men
were to be accommodated.
When the war ended, Quonset Huts were too good a resource to throw away. So the military sold them to civilians for about a thousand dollars each. They made serviceable single-family homes. Universities made them into student housing and returning veterans occupied Quonset huts by choice. Robert Winton even wrote play about them titled Tents of Tin.
Once in a while, a really good design surfaces -- robust, simple, and enduring. The DC-3, the Jeep, and the Quonset hut are all examples of good design. Many are still standing throughout the United States, primarily as commercial buildings.To learn more about Quonset Huts, we recommend the book Quonset Huts, Metal Living for a Modern Age by Julie Decker and Chris Chiei, published by The Anchorage Museum of History and Art, Anchorage, Alaska.