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World War II-era Quonset huts provide cramped but affordable housing

Wednesday, November 27, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CST
This Quonset Hut, one of four at 1505 W. Worley St., is among the last eight World War II-era structures remaining in the area for residential use. The huts were constructed in 1945 and are 960 square feet each and made of Stran-Steel. Each Quonset is divided into two apartments, with a door at either end.

COLUMBIA — Take a gigantic aluminum can, slice it in half and cut holes for windows and doors. Just like that, you have a Quonset hut. 

The fact they still exist in Columbia — eight remain — is a testament to their sturdy construction and robust materials. For more than 60 years, they have housed dozens of students and others looking for affordable living spaces.

By the numbers

Mass production of Quonsets in the period surrounding World War II included:

  1. Quonset hut, T-rib: 8,200
  2. Quonset redesigned: 25,000
  3. Stran-Steel Quonset: 120,000

Total: 153,200


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Residents put up with quirky floor plans, unstable foundations and sporadic temperature changes to live in a Quonset hut. But the rent is right: around $400 a month.

"For something that was built in 1945, it's amazing that nothing has destroyed it," said Lee Parey, who lives in a hut on Worley Street.

The university acquired numerous trailers and surplus Quonsets when it faced a housing crunch after soldiers returned home in 1946.

That fall, a large number of young veterans took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled at MU. With this flood of students — nearly 8,000 more than the previous year — the university needed to quickly devise a plan to house them efficiently.

By the mid-'50s, enough living space had been constructed to house the student population, and many were removed. Two groups of Quonsets still stand — five on West Worley Street and three on South College Avenue.

Parey stumbled upon his Quonset hut in the early 2000s. At $435 a month, he decided to give it a shot. 

"I believe it's an old Army barracks," he said, pointing to a corroded steel wall.

"It's hot in the summer, and cold in the winter," he said. "You have to run the furnace a lot. But because it's made of all metal, it can't catch fire."

Not much square footage

A hut in Columbia is typically divided into two units, and Parey's space has about 600 square feet. He says it's spacious compared to others.

"This one is quite a bit bigger than the ones down the street," he said.

William Thompson has lived in a Stran-Steel Quonset on Worley Street for five months. His hut is divided into two 480-square-foot units.

"It's not exactly the most spacious place," he said. "You have to stand to the side to use the bathroom, but I've lived in apartments that are worse."

In recent years, the foundation of Parey's hut has started to crack around the door frame from water damage. But residents say adapting a hut to 21st-century technology is often the biggest challenge.

"If you want cable TV, you must have an antenna on the roof or in the yard," Parey said. "My cellphone only gets one bar, but it will pull in radio."

Another common complaint with Quonsets is decorating the space. Austin Famm, who has lived in a Quonset on College Avenue, said he avoids buying tall furniture. And decorating the walls is problematic.

"I tell people that I live in a house that looks like an air base," he said.

Hut history 

The portable, prefabricated structures originated in the United States during World War II as barracks and MASH units. They were also used as churches, schools, offices, latrines and isolation wards.

Inspired by a British design, the American version was named after the place of its origin — Quonset Point, R.I. More than 150,000 huts were built during the war, with many sold to the public afterward.

"It's an instant building that can travel and be assembled by people without any construction knowledge," said Donald Albrecht, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York.

Prior to the Quonset, assembling metal buildings took either welding skills or a lot of time, Albrecht said. It was made from corrugated galvanized steel and was lightweight enough to be shipped anywhere.The innovation of the American hut was its ability to be nailed together quickly.

After the war, countless huts were re-purposed for civilian and commercial use. Across the United States, Quonsets served as homes, cafes, gas stations and just about anything where curved walls were welcomed.

In Missouri, the Quonset-based Zephyr Gas & Cafe in Villa Ridge still stands, as well as the Eldon Pederson Field House on the campus of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. There's Gentz Auto & Boat Repair in south St. Louis and a Quonset hut in Van Meter State Park near Marshall.

But among the most famous is the Quonset Hut in Nashville where Patsy Cline recorded "Crazy" and Brenda Lee "I'm Sorry." It closed in 1982 and was revived in 2009 as a music studio for Belmont University's Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business.

Moving out

For the Travis family, the Quonset story is coming to a close.

Wendy Travis' mother has lived in the orange Stran-Steel style Quonset on West Worley Street for the past two years because of the low cost. Now, she's moving in with her daughter, leaving the space to the next tenant.

"They're a part of history," she said. "If they were better maintained, I wouldn't mind living in one."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.


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