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Friday, August 5, 2011

Long Live the Quonset Hut (Aug. 5, 2011)

Does that name evoke any images? I’d never heard of them until I started college, when I first stepped inside one for an art class. I remember it clearly. The structure really fascinated me. Curved walls and ceilings are so surprising if you’ve always lived in square-cornered buildings.

(This photo shows one of the Quonsets that UCSD aquired when it took over the land from
Camp Matthews. It's not my photo but this is exactly what they looked like more than twenty-five years later, when I started school there.)

(This is also not my photo but this is what it looked like in the Quonsets where we had art classes.)

Their funkiness really fit with what art students do: forgoing traditional approaches in favor of something less confining. The lack of sharp angles in the huts fit perfectly with what I was experiencing, not only in my art classes but as a brand new college student: new ideas, new freedoms as well as new hurdles. Our intro art classes were very conceptual. We contemplated what art could be. It was air. It was an idea. It was a moment. It was the tangle of voices chanting different things at precisely 10:32am. It was limitless, not bound by rigid rules. Like the Quonset hut itself, art bent where you expected things to be solid.

That useful tool known as Google is helping with my Quonset Hut questions. It turns out UCSD was born on land that was formerly a marine base. In 1967 UC La Jolla (as it was originally known before becoming UC San Diego) acquired the 1,000-acre Camp Matthews. The Quonset Huts remained on university land for more than twenty-five years. While I was there they were all removed to allow for the construction of a fancy-shmancy, huge new building. Although I recognize that it makes sense to put a multi-story building in the footprint of a formerly 1-story building, I felt sad about it. New isn’t always better. Older things have value, too. The quirkiness of these buildings fit with the rustic feel UCSD had twenty years ago. Now it’s much more cutting-edge and polished, which is a mixed thing for me.

Quonset Huts were named after the site of their first manufacture, Quonset Point, Rhode Island. They were lightweight prefabricated structures made of galvanized iron and semicircular arched ribs. They did not require skilled labor to be put together and could be shipped anywhere in the world. The first Quonset hut measured sixteen feet by thirty feet. Apparently the military did not make the original Quonset Huts after 1959, although similar, larger structures have been created since.

When I drive around San Diego I sometimes see a Quonset Hut. Next time I spot one I need to get out and really look at it. One houses a roller skating rink! Some of the local Quonset Huts may be new (it’s hard to tell when you’re driving by, and the basic design has not changed in fifty years so how am I to know if it’s original or simply using the original shape?) The new ones don’t interest me. They are too big, too modern. I like the humble, small ones that are only marginally taller than a person standing, ones with a back story. Online there are many, many photos of Quonset Huts, and buildings inspired by them. There are new homes that borrow from the Quonset’s curves. But for me they are akin to the newer Volkswagen Beetles: cute in their own way but too modern-looking for my taste. I need chrome. I need 50s curves. I’ll take funky charm over speed or modern touches any day.

(This is another photo I got online, showing the interior of a Quonset Hut owned by a woman named Rose, in Kodiak, Alaska.)

(How fun is this photo? A woman and her granddaughter transformed the outside of a Quonset, making a cookie-cutter prefab building into simply fab!)

In rural areas I’ve seen structures that resemble Quonset huts: plastic-covered half-pipe structures, under which are growing things. They are called high tunnels, high hoops or hoop houses, temporary structures that extend the growing season.

Apparently there is a huge number of Quonset Huts in Alaska. Is this because their curved roof made sense in a snowy climate? Or is it because a state like Alaska is not as populated as others, and less vulnerable to bulldozing of old structures in order to make way for housing developments? I’m sure Quonset Huts can be found in quite a few (or all?) states, but rural areas seem to have more of them.

I’m borrowing a book from the library this weekend, Quonset Hut: Metal Living for a Modern Age, by Chris Chiei, and I’m sure I’ll be back to blog more about Quonsets once I’ve flipped through it. It may seem funny to some that I’m so excited about these structures. My friend Ed finds them far more functional than fabulous. But their unpretentious ways appeal to me. I’m sure it has something to do with this, too: when I discovered them I was also discovering who I was as a young adult. It’s easy to feel nostalgic about that sense of wonder that comes upon you when you’re uncovering so many new ideas, new places, new experiences. I was a shiny new college student, and I found some magic in something older, something dusty and to some, outdated. But I say you can find magic anywhere, if you’re open to finding it in unexpected places.


  1. Well, I guess I never saw one so lovingly decked out in natural wood interiors. That's actually kinda neat. Would be a good studio for drums. Maybe I need to get meself a 'hut and set up Hog Hutt'en.

  2. Not sure I like the current UCSD buildings. They look rather drab and uninspired. Either they appear as showoff for architect's egos (I think it's the library) or totally ugly poured concrete that shows no imagination and just makes the whole place dreary and, coupled with the murky ocean air, rather much like a drab Eastern Bloc scene from 1970. Ick. How is that conducive to educating a person? How in the world did Sarah Bad Bo ever drift in there? Too colorful for all that, you!