The Narragansett were a northeastern Algonquian Native American people. In 1709, the Narragansett quit-claimed New England tribal lands under pressure from the British government. By 1717 the area had been divided into farming plots purchased by European settlers.
A place there is named Quonset Point – Quonset appears to translate either as ‘long-place,’ ‘round shallow cove’ or ‘boundary.’
The birthplace of the US Navy, Quonset Point goes back to the Revolutionary War, when a guard was placed there to watch for British warships that might sail up Narragansett Bay to raid coastal Rhode Island cities. (QuonsetAirMuseum)
With growing tension and anticipation of war, a few days after Christmas 1938, Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson submitted a report to Congress, making recommendations for naval air-base development at various locations.
A subsequent $65-million legislative authorization included naval air stations at Kāne’ohe, Midway, Pearl Harbor and several other facilities, including the nation’s first northeastern air station to be located at Quonset Point in Rhode Island.
Commissioned on July 12, 1941, and encompassing what was once Camp Dyer, NAS Quonset Point was a major naval facility throughout World War II and well into the Cold War.
At that time, the Navy needed an all-purpose, lightweight, standardized housing unit that made efficient use of shipping space, could be easily transported anywhere and could be quickly and easily assembled without skilled labor.
The housing unit needed to be adaptable to any geographic or climatic condition, without extensive reliance on local resources of material or labor.
Two construction companies, George A Fuller and Company and Merritt-Chapman had been hired to build the Quonset Point 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.
Designed in response to specific demands generated by the deteriorating world situation in 1941, the hut moved swiftly from concept design to construction and use.
They modeled a structure after the British Nissen. Lt Colonel Peter Nissen, a Canadian officer in the Royal Engineers during the First World War, developed the Nissen Hut in mid-1916 to house troops in the build-up for the Battle of the Somme. (Rogers)
Dejongh and Brandenberger adapted the Nissen 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 – but would they call the structure? Since they were being developed at Navy Seabee Base Quonset Point, Rhode Island, the new design was called a Quonset Hut. (SeabeeMuseum)
Over time, improvements and changes were made and the “Quonset Stran-Steel Hut” was the most produced; it was larger, (20 by 48-feet – the original Fuller version was 16 by 36 feet) and lighter, using 3 ½ tons of steel instead of 4 tons and required 270 to 325-cubic feet of shipping space.
The 20 x 48 kit was intended to house 25-men; 10-Seabees could assemble a Quonset 20 in less than one day. (The final design required less shipping space than tents with wood floors and frames for the same occupancy.) (Rogers)
The Quonset 40 by 100-feet (‘Elephant Huts,’) developed for use at ‘advance (supply) bases,’ were used as warehouses, machine shops, power and pump plant enclosures, etc.
The Fuller Company couldn’t produce a sufficient quantity of the new huts, so Stran-Steel, a subsidiary of the Great Lakes Steel Corporation in Detroit, was retained to fabricate the thousands of Quonset Huts that were needed.
Stran-Steel also came up with an efficient system that allowed simple nailing of the corrugated steel skins and interior Masonite liner sheets to the arched frames (further reducing the erection time and eliminating most of the nuts and bolts used in the early model.)
Originally, all huts had unpainted galvanized exteriors; later, olive drab camouflage paint was added to exposed panels at the factory to reduce reflectance. Later the color was changed to flat light grey. (Rogers)
A total of 153,200 Quonset Huts and 11,800 Warehouse units were produced or procured by the US Navy during World War II.
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 – many continue to be used for housing, storage and other uses.
Quonset Point Naval Air Station decommissioned on June 28, 1974; today, it is home of the 143rd Airlift Wing of the Rhode Island Air National Guard. The base also hosts an annual air show every June, as well as a small airstrip for commercial purpose. (Lots of information here is from Navy, Rogers, Amaral, Seabee Museum and LOC-HABS.)