These days it is trendy to make homes and other structures out of discarded metal shipping containers. Although not the ideal construction material they are strong, have a good deal of interior space, can be scaled (end to end, stacked, or welded "double wide" style after removing one side), and there are literally millions of the damn things lying around unused. They can be purchased for as little as $1500 to $2000 in used but undamaged condition. In recent years some architects and do-it-yourselfers have done some damn interesting things with them, building unique and often elaborate structures at minimal cost.

Recently, though, I found a great local example (which in Central Illinois means "sad") of a previous generation's version of this phenomenon: the Quonset Hut. These were prefabricated buildings built in the hundreds of thousands during World War II as an inexpensive, easy to erect (lololol), and surprisingly adequate form of shelter. They were particularly common in the Pacific, where the strategic occupation of deserted islands meant that scads of people had to be housed on desolate rocks without so much as a tree to be found. Made out of cheap materials like corrugated steel sheets and pressed board, the half dome shape provided strength, an open interior, and good ventilation when needed. It wasn't luxury living; the steel roof makes it sound an awful lot like living in half a trash can. Nonetheless it kept inhabitants out of the sun, wind, and rain. They were used as housing, barracks, prisons, mess halls, hospitals, outhouses, and for just about any other purpose that could be accommodated in 750 square feet of floor space.

Central Illinois, ladies and gentlemen
Central Illinois, ladies and gentlemen

At the War's end the government had more of these things than they knew what to do with, having ordered warehouses full of them in preparation with a long invasion of Japan that never happened. They were sold as surplus for next to nothing and sprung up around the country as cheap homes, bars, garages, small businesses, and storage spaces. As a testament to the durability of the very basic design, some of them are still around. Here's a neat selection of creative Quonset Hut homes and a neat art exhibition and book put together by architectural historians.

21 thoughts on “NPF: HUT HUT”

  • The neighborhood grocery store in our postwar corner of Boomer Paradise was a Quonset hut mounted on cinderblock walls. At some point prior to my birth (1961), an interior wall had been embellished with a vaguely Thomas Hart Bentonian mural on the history of California agriculture. It did not occur to me until well into my twenties that there was anything odd about this.

    What was the sad part of Friendly Valley? It looked more appealing than most of the two-by-four and drywall McMansions I've seen here in California, and certainly more enduring.

  • When my grandfather was a college freshman in 1949, the men's dorms were Quonset huts (given that it was 1949, most of the freshmen–though not my grandfather–were in their mid-to-late 20s and had spent significant time living in the things earlier in the decade). Add in that they weren't insulated (and in the Midwest) you can imagine what both the late summer and most of the winter was like. The only way out was to join a fraternity, where the men only lived 4 to a room. Thinking about my freshmen this semester, I'm not sure how many would survive a week in January in one of those (not that I'd have been much better 15 years ago).

  • When I was a kid in small-town Willamette Valley, Oregon in the 1970s there were a half-dozen buildings of the style in town. One housed the local movie theatre (with a false front) and was much larger, two-story with a steel framework.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Wow, you can really see the ingenuity of some architects and people!

    They took prefab housing designed to house troops, and turned them into really nice homes!
    And you don't even need to worry about snow on the roof!

  • Cinna the Poet says:

    The Midwestern government facility I work at had several late-40s-vintage Quonset huts in use as office space into the 1980s, and later for shipping and receiving well into the mid-1990s. After one of them moved about two feet to the left during a thunderstorm, we finally convinced our funding agency they needed to be replaced with actual bricks and mortar.

  • Nothing like a driving rain or hail on a metal roof. I didn't appreciate boot camp in a Quonset hut until advanced infantry training in a tent.

  • My dad was in the Seabees in North Africa (Algeria and Morocco) 1942-1944 with the 120th Construction Battalion. They were building airfields and bases for the invasion of Sicily.

    He built many Quonset huts. He told me about one that was supervised by a Chief who didn't believe that components of a building had to be put up square. They slapped it together. I guess the components had enough "give" in them that they could be connected while their shape was slightly distorted.

    That Quonset hut always leaked. The ones put up correctly did not.

  • There are still several here in Madison. There's one that's a hair salon on Milwaukee Street and another on Atwood Avenue near Tex Tubb's Taco Palace. Pretty sure there's a larger one on Winnebago street too.

    My favorite, however, is "The Quonset Hut Pizza" in Waukegan Illinois. We went there weekly as kids, and I visited it recently (four months ago?) and it's still just the same on the inside.

  • My neighbor still uses a large one as a garage.
    And someone is living in one in the older homes on the slopes surrounding "downtown."

    Time to order me up a shipping container from the barge dock down the road, I guess. If only for the unholy and shameful joy of causing my neighbors in their mansion to shit bricks.

  • The county to the north of mine has a mountain running down the middle of it. The courthouse and jail are on one side of the mountain but a lot of the "crime" (drunken driving, marijuana farming, wife-beating, petty vandalism, breaking and entering, car theft, bail-jumping) happens on the other side. Sometimes it would be inconvenient for a deputy to carry someone over the mountain, so the county powers decided to build a holding facility on the crime-ridden side. They didn't have access to a quonset hut so they used a big corrugated pipe, like the kind that would carry a fair-sized creek under a road. They welded chain link fence over each end and cut out a section for a door that could be padlocked in place from the outside. This was used to hold prisoners – sometimes overnight – until it was convenient to take them over the mountain.

  • They're a special source of pride to all of us here in Rhode Island — named after Quonset Point naval base in North Kingstown where they were first designed. I lived next to one in college, they literally floated it down Narragansett Bay and erected it on a huge stilt foundation with non-load bearing walls on the first floor.

  • In my area of old lake cottages, a street car or two has used for cabins. Quonset huts or containers would make more sense than some of the horrors erected for similar purposes.

    In one town near here a large Quonset hut "design" was built and used for a movie theater. It's still around and has been home to several businesses.

    To me, the shipping containers have more appeal that did the short lived 1940s-50s steel prefabricated homes. There's a resemblance to "50s Modern" design in several.

    Nice posting.

  • I lived in one for a year when I was 8, on the U. of Minn. campus married housing area. We could tell you what the temperature was outside in the winter by how high the rivets were frosted on the interior wall. They were split in the middle, with a family living on each end. After a fatal fire one year, there was an escape hatch cut in the separation wall of each hut so you could exit via the other family's side in an emergency. I didn't mind it a bit, being a kid and all, but I imagine mother wasn't too happy, since we had lived in an actual house in Kansas the year before …

  • Reading China's Second Continent, as the author enters Monrovia:

    The nature of the settlements changed dramatically as we edged into Monrovia. The most common dwellings were hulking steel shipping containers that had been converted, occasionally with great flair, into living quarters. Most had cutout windows; some boasted screen doors and awnings; some, little appendage-like terraces. Others were painted in vivid colors.

  • Up on Peaks Island in Casco Bay there was talk back in the late 70's of people wanting to buy former coastal defense gun emplacements that have concrete walls that are over a yard thick to turn into their "summer" homes. I'm not sure if that ever got off the ground.

  • The university where I work had one for our Outdoor Rec Center, where you could rent skis or work on your bicycle. It was torn down a few years ago and everything moved to the new, modern rec center. I hardly ever go there now, just doesn't have the same casual vibe as that old Quonset.

  • Rich (In Name Only) in Reno says:

    From 2000-2009, I lived in this little town called Monte Rio, Ca, located in West Sonoma County on the Russian River between Guerneville and Jenner. If it’s known to the outside world at all, it’s because that’s where many of our Illuminati/Masters of the Universe convene once a year to privately get their freak on at Bohemian Grove.

    Monte Rio has a movie theater, the Rio Theater, which is housed in an old Quonset hut, and believe it or not manages to show first run features. Due to it proximity to the river, the theater suffers flood damage every few years. The theater managed to scrap together the funds to go digital in 2013.

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