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).
Although several thousand of these huts T-Rib Huts were produced, they were awkward to crate and too heavy for shipping. Engineers soon found a faster, cheaper way to assemble huts using an existing building product for the rib. Known as Stran-Steel, it was developed in the early 1930s by Great Lakes Steel Corporation, but had never caught on due to the premium price. It was a welded steel strip 2 by 3 5/8 inches -actually two lightweight channels welded back to back - with a wavy center groove that held special nails with lead seals.
The "Quonset Stran-Steel Hut" was so simple to erect that anyone who could hammer a nail could set it up. A crew of just 6 experienced men could build a hut in a single day. On the Museum grounds, hut number 4 is an example of this design.
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 ½ 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.
A Quonset hut being put in place at the 598th Engineer Base Depot in Japan, post-World War II
The flexible open interior space of a Quonset Hut allowed them to be used for hundreds of applications including barracks, offices, medical and dental offices, isolation wards, bakeries, chapels, theaters, latrines – you name it. As the necessity arose for adapting the huts to a new use, the details were worked out and checked by actually erecting units at the Davisville Base. In all, 86 approved interior layout plans were prepared. In many cases it was necessary to develop special interior equipment, such as special ovens, to fit the Quonset Hut form.
Larger warehouse structures also were developed for Navy advance-base use. The first were 40-by-100-foot structures with vertical sides. They used 20 tons of steel and required 650 cubic feet of shipping space. About 300 of these were procured. A Quonset-type warehouse of the same floor plan superseded them. The steel weight was reduced to 12 1/2 tons, and the shipping volume was only 350 cubic feet. The largest wartime assemblage of huts was said to have been a 54,000-square-foot warehouse on Guam called the "Multiple Mae West."
To meet the growing demand, a number of other companies produced variations of the Quonset Hut for the Military during the Second World War:
- The Pacific Hut Company was formed to produce an all-wood hut for Arctic use.
- Butler Manufacturing made a squat hut with U-shaped arch ribs.
- Jamesway Manufacturing made a hut with wooden ribs and insulated fabric covering.
- Armco International made heavy-weight arched bunkers to store ammunition.
- Cowan and Company made semicircular warehouses for the Air Corp.
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.