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AMERICAN QUONSET : Another Day in Hutsville : A trip around Ventura County offers many examples of the versatility of the arched structures.


Let us now praise the unjustly maligned golden arch. Architecturally speaking, Southern California likes to promote dubious notions about its own heritage. Spanish Colonial Revival style, with its red tile roofs, white surfaces and references to missions and colonial rule, has run rampant. But does anyone go to the mat for the historical and/or efficient architectural archetype, the lowly Quonset hut? It gets no respect.

Wipe away the grime of stereotypes and infamy, and the Quonset hut takes on a new gleam of nobility. What could be more essential, more utilitarian and more philosophically modern? This is minimalism at its best. Frivolous frills are wiped out of the equation. The hut represents a familiar, anti-angular, irreducible, inimitable form: an arc of corrugated metal panels draped over a reclining rib cage of support. Pure beauty, beautiful purity.

And yet, at the ripe age of 50, the Quonset hut is the orphaned child of bygone Americana , disowned and disregarded, more or less left for dead. But look around. Quonset huts have been imaginatively transported and transformed, especially here in Ventura County, in the shadow of Port Hueneme--once a Quonset hut haven.

Take, for example, the naval base's Seabee museum itself. Comprised of two large huts, now bridged with a central wing and expanded with two side wings, the museum's twin-hut motif makes perfect sense. After all, the Seabees are in the construction business.

A plaque outside the museum reads, "This museum serves as a shrine for the past, an incentive for the present and a goal for the future for all civil engineer corps officers and the Seabees of the Navy." Not to mention that it's a shrine for the humble and almighty hut.

Once upon a time, the hut was the dominant architectural theme on the base, but has slowly been phased out in favor of other nondescript structures. None hold a candle to the romance and lore of the hut.

Another creative, kitschy use of a Quonset hut can be seen on 5th Street in Oxnard, by the airport. There lies the ghost of an old nightclub, comprised of one large hut, onto which a huge tropical-like entryway of wood slats on leaning, triangular supports has been added as ornamentation.

The party is clearly over here, at this decaying old club. Good times have rolled into the sunset.

Today, a dormant "Cocktails" sign sits on a leaning, rusty pole. Tall weeds have overtaken the parking lot--the scene of former liaisons. You imagine that it had a name like the Tiki Hut. With the airport next door you also imagine that budget versions of the "Casablanca" scenario were enacted here. Such is the mystical nature of Quonset huts.

For a shining (literally) example of a Quonset hut in action, proceed to Quality Muffler Shop on Highway 33 in Miramonte, outside of Ojai. The large, freshly painted blue-and-white structure integrates nicely into the semi-rural surrounding. There is something implicitly temporary and functional, and therefore less intrusive about a hut in relationship to its environment.

Quonset hut purists may not appreciate the way the adjacent "Lube Shop" has been amended to the arch, by means of two large corrugated metal sheets arranged in a square. Then again, one practical virtue of the hut is its infinite malleability. A few bolts and some resourceful thinking can go a long way.

A hut can even make a happy home. Just ask the Andersons (see main story) of Newbury Park. At the end of a remote road--a "vestige of antiquity," says Sue Anderson--a hut has been gracefully transformed into the stuff of cozy domestic bliss. Trellises on the exterior have been added to encourage foliage. Masses of bougainvillea and wood paneling also grace the exterior, while front and back porches advance a refined sense of home. To the side, a half-hut has been turned into a garage for the Andersons' vintage tractor.

You can see other hut houses in the county--in El Rio and over in Ventura's oil-field area, for instance. At one time, when the Navy was selling off huts, these arches were practical and affordable housing options. Call them minimalist precursors to mobile homes.

Just down the street from a fancifully renovated two-story Victorian house on Bell Way in Ventura, there sits a shiny hut, equipped with a vegetable garden and embodying the comfort of home in the truest sense.

Sometimes, the best examples are so obvious as to be invisible. Take, for example, our own Ventura County Fairgrounds. The two main exhibition halls are epically scaled Quonset huts. Visible from the freeway and towering over the other fairground structures, here are two more shrines in the civilian zone, calmly bespeaking Ventura's legacy.

A few hundred yards away, the white sands and pounding surf of the sea echo the hut's Navy connection. Off in another direction, an elaborate but standard issue Mission-style facade, replete with a phony bell tower and tile roof, serves as the ticket office and official entryway for fair-goers.

Meanwhile, the huge huts, meat-and-potatoes of the place, do their job without fanfare. The story of their life.

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