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American Quonset : After 50 years of use, the humble huts are largely forgotten--except by a few loyal fans and those who call the structures home.

July 11, 1991|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a dark corner of the Naval Construction Battalion Museum in Port Hueneme, two metal models stand uncelebrated and undecorated. They are Quonsets, and this could have been their year.

The Quonset hut, shelter to the soldier, refuge for the frugal landowner and fixture on this nation's architectural landscape, turns 50 this summer. And to mark the corrugated metal structure's golden anniversary, military leaders, housing officials and architecture experts from California to Washington have planned nothing.

Nothing at the Virginia research office of the Army Corps of Engineers, where historian Martin K. Gordon confesses that "the Quonset hut hasn't really leaped to mind."

Nothing at the Great Lakes Steel Corp. in Detroit, which once led the world in Quonset production.

And nothing at the National Building Museum in Washington, though curator David Chase offers condolences.

The Quonset hut is "a fabulous example of American ingenuity and can-do spirit and productive power," says Chase, who may include a hut in a World War II exhibit planned for 1993 or 1994. "It's an example of what this nation can achieve when it gets its ducks in a row."

Committed Quonset people, when you can find them, say these things. They talk about simplicity, utility and durability, and it's hard to argue with them.

But Quonset people are usually a quiet minority, and no wonder. Their building of choice has become the Gerald Ford of American architecture: unique in history, yet derided, ignored and forgotten by millions.

The Port Hueneme museum at least offers a glimpse at Quonset culture. There is the museum building itself, a Quonset-based hybrid that dates to 1947 or before. There are those two models, and above them there is a 1944 Navy Quonset construction manual.

"It's not the sexiest exhibit," says museum director Vincent A. Transano. But you can't commemorate the Navy's builders without a mention of Quonset huts.

And once you start looking, you can't go far without sighting another Quonset.

Within just a few miles of the museum's doors, there are the main exhibit buildings of the Ventura County Fairgrounds, a pair of former Quonset structures that once served as military hangars. Next door to the Oxnard Airport there's a jumbo-size Quonset, idle and rusting, that once held a tropical-theme nightclub. Along the road from Ventura to Ojai, there's the Quality Muffler Shop, a sky-blue arch guarded by a chocolate Labrador named Cherokee.

"It used to be a military barracks, I guess," says Clay Mullis, owner of Cherokee and Quality Muffler. "I talked to one guy who said this building was built for the Philippines, that it would withstand a 200 mile-an-hour wind. I believe it. It's a good building. I'd like to have another one, and just bolt it onto the end."

So it goes across the county, and the country. Churches, banks, theaters, offices, barns, schools, homes, bowling alleys. A nation's face forever changed, a sprawling story largely untold. The Quonset story.

Meet Rob Brokaw, Quonset person. Brokaw, the 32-year-old co-owner of the Brokaw Nursery in Ventura, has lived in a Quonset hut, with his espresso machine, for the last five years. "It's the same Quonset hut that I lived in from ages 0 to 5," he says. There were three children in the family, and the structure came along with the one-acre site of his father's first nursery in El Rio.

"I paid rent in Ventura for a time, and we still had this property. And it dawned on me one day that it would make affordable employee housing for me."

Advantages: "Price." Also, "I suspect that it's an excellent structure to be in in an earthquake."

Disadvantages: "The Masonite walls, which are thin and have holes easily knocked in them." Also, "the internal walls are angled, which makes hanging things on them a challenge." And when the weather changes, "the hut tends to ping and pop a lot, like a motor will when it's cooling down."

Spring, 1941. In an Accrington, England, laboratory, British scientists were discovering polyester fiber. In the South Pacific, Navy researchers were about to invent the aerosol spray can to dispense insecticide.

And on the west shore of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, a team of Navy officials and civilian contractors set to work devising a portable, durable, adaptable structure for use by the Allies in World War II.

It took them just under three months--an extraordinary example of engineering against deadline. But there was this problem of uncertain ancestry.

By all accounts, the British Nissen hut, a similarly shaped military structure, served as an inspiration. But by some accounts, the original inspiration should be traced to the cylindrical "long houses" devised by the Narragansett Indians 300 years before.

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