History & Tourism

Housing Shortage Compels Creative Solution: Quonset House, Anyone?

28 Dec , 2019  

The Mansfield News Journal recently ran an interesting article about lack of mid-tier housing in Mansfield (that story can be read here).  Hopefully this means that our local economy is on the upswing, as the article asserts that the housing shortage is caused by low jobless rate and low interest rates. But it also got us thinking about a time in Mansfield’s past, or – more correctly – the country’s past, when there was not enough housing for everyone.

After World War II, soldiers headed back to the United States in continual waves but the US had been focused on the war effort and had not been building new homes. Though the soldiers chose different paths upon their homecoming, such as heading to college, living in new cities, or returning to the place where they grew up, the overall effect was a housing shortage that called for creative solutions.

It was common for families to offer up a spare room to a soldier or two, but there was another solution that was utilized, including in Mansfield: quonset huts. These are lightweight prefabricated structures of corrugated galvanized steel that are built in such a way that they resemble a half circle coming up from the earth. Between 150,000 and 170,000 quonset huts were manufactured during World War II, and they were used to house service members and supplies; the military then sold the surplus to the public after the War. In addition, businesses began fabricating quonset huts as “quonset houses”; they were marketed as inexpensive and comfortable temporary homes that would have the additional benefit of providing much-needed housing.

One such structure near Mansfield was photographed by the Associated Press (AP) in late 1945, and the photographs were used in newspapers across the country to tout the quonset houses. Beginning around Christmas Day in 1945, the pictures appeared in the Atlanta Constitution, the Indianapolis Star, and countless other papers. A different quonset hut had even stood in Central Park in downtown Mansfield and was used as shelter by servicemen who were traveling through the area; that quonset hut was moved to Maple Lake and used as a meeting location for groups such as the parks association.

In January 1946, the News-Journal reported that quonset huts would be used to help resolve the local housing shortage, and two quonset homes would be constructed to show the public how comfortable this new type of housing would be. Just a few months later one of those homes, located at 490 McPherson Street, Mansfield, was opened for approximately 1 week; thousands of people came to walk through the curiously shaped home. Near Mifflin, a “Vetsville” was opened in September 1946 to provider veterans and their families with quality temporary housing, including approximately 24 quonset homes. There were many Vetsvilles across the country, some even used on college campuses to house the influx of student-veterans.

In 1953, the Vetsville near Mifflin closed and the process was begun to turn it into a summer camp for youth and for religious groups. Into the 1950’s and 1960’s, quonset houses were listed for sale locally alongside traditional homes. From a 1955 listing: “Large quonset located close in south made into comfortable 5 room house with modern kitchen and full bath. Could be used for certain types of business.” The asking price was $5,500.00; other homes listed for sale that day were at least twice that price.

As time marched on, fewer people wanted to live in such a structure and quonset houses were mostly advertised as farm-use buildings. In the 1990s, Congress was looking for an innovative solution for prison overcrowding and Senator John Glenn suggested quonset huts for nonviolent offenders; Glenn had lived in a quonset hut himself during his time in the military. A bill amendment was added to encourage ‘no-frills prison construction’ and to allow time to study potential savings from housing certain prisoners in structures such as quonset huts.

Even today, if you search on the Internet, you can find quonset huts and quonset hut kits for sale. They are marketed as both storage/farm buildings, and low-cost homes. And that quonset house at 490 McPherson Street that was toured by thousands? It’s still there today.

So the next time someone wants to show you a YouTube video of a “tiny house,” you will be able to tell them all about its predecessor, the quonset house.

Sources: Wikipedia, Mansfield News Journal, Indianapolis Star; Photo: Creative Commons License

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