The State of Aloha
It was 1941. The United States Navy was looking for portable, easy-to-assemble structures that were lightweight and could be set up anywhere without skilled labor. The George A. Fuller construction company was awarded the job of making them for the military.
It was a simple structure. A floor is laid with a series of semicircle-shaped “ribs.” Then it is covered with prefabricated steel that serves as both a roof and walls. A front and back encloses the structure with windows and doors. In other words, it resembled a tin can cut in half lying on its side. The odd yet sturdy structure was named after the place where it was first assembled — the Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island.
The Quonset hut was a success. When the United States entered the Second World War, the military constructed around 155,000 Quonset huts across Europe and the Pacific. They could be built in a day with 10 people and required no specialized tools or construction equipment.
The structures, however, weren’t universally loved. The squat, strange huts were uncomfortable for the soldiers and civilians who had to live in them. Many described it as living in a tunnel. Others learned the hard way that when you get too close to the walls, you’re likely to hit your head.
Still, the military loved it, and wherever the Americans went in the war, so did the Quonset hut. Our islands were no exception. After the war, there was a severe housing shortage in Honolulu. Building companies won government contracts to obtain and sell the excess Quonset huts. Among them was an ambitious newcomer to Honolulu from Connecticut.
Frank Fasi got his start in the islands selling Quonset huts (locals called them “kamaboko” houses) to civilians right after the war. Unlike the military, civilians got creative with the half-cylindrical structure.
Famed architect Vladmir Ossipoff created a modern masterpiece overlooking Kaneohe Bay in 1948. Using two huts, eliminating walls, and inserting sliding doors created a home that featured stunning views of the Koolau Mountains and the vast Kaneohe Bay. A magazine review of the house a few years later noted that the Quonset hut home was “attractive, unusual, livable and very good at withstanding the hard wear of small boys.”
But not everyone was a fan of the structures. In fact, most people found them atrocious. As the economy improved in Honolulu and the rest of the country, more and more people resented the widespread use of the ubiquitous steel structures. Editors at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin at one point called it the “Quonset Menace.”
Campuses were using them as classrooms. A Buddhist mission converted them into a boarding house at a temple. More and more people were using them for living spaces.
In 1950, the City and County of Honolulu cracked down on the Quonset hut as a home and prohibited the structures from residential neighborhoods. While Honolulu may have abandoned the Quonset hut for more fashionable homes and structures, the Neighbor Islands were still prime Quonset hut locations.
Here on Maui you can find them hiding in plain sight. There’s one housing a laundromat in Wailuku. Another stands proudly on Lower Main Street. Others lie abandoned and overgrown with grass around Kanaha Pond.
My personal favorite is in Haiku right off Hana Highway. The Kalanikahua Hou Church is a Quonset hut painted a dark, emerald green with two great wooden doors. For as long as I can remember, this Protestant church has housed its faithful flock every Sunday morning in the old military surplus structure.
There’s even a Quonset hut renaissance these days. With a movement away from big homes and the hipster trend of tiny homes, the cheap, affordable, one-room hut has become fashionable again.
On top of that, some groups on Oahu — where it was once reviled — are trying to preserve the structures. A Pearl City Quonset hut in particular has sparked interest from the African American Diversity Center.
It is believed to be part of the Manana Barracks — segregated housing for soldiers during World War II in 1943 and 1944. That means it would have housed famous athletes and musicians like John Coltrane during the war. But so far it remains undesignated by the State Historic Preservation Division.
So keep your eye out for these squat, round, historic reminders of cheap housing during the territorial years. You never know when they’ll disappear for good.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”