Afterthoughts: Quonset Cool

Curved, corrugated, casual—Hawaii’s kamaboko houses are prefab-ulous.

Photo: Linny Morris

For the February issue, our writers walked the length of Queen Street, exploring all the businesses hidden along the way. It was an absorbing adventure—Kakaako has a layered, old-school vibe that feels as if it may not last forever. If the gentrification there continues, what I’ll miss the most, I realized, are the Quonset huts. Rounded, somehow simultaneously no-nonsense and whimsical, the structures we call kamaboko houses always stand out from the conventional buildings surrounding them.

Quonset huts have become a quintessentially local kind of architecture. I don’t mean local like thatched huts, or even like Dickey’s double-pitched roofs. Local like Spam. Sure, you can get Spam on the Mainland, it’s just different here.

Just like our favorite canned meat, Quonset huts came to the Islands in the 1940s, brought in by the U.S. military. The prefabricated kits were cheap, light, and quick to assemble with no expertise needed, and so up they popped, housing troops, storing goods, being generally useful.

illustration: daniel fishel

Quonset huts get their name from the small Rhode Island town in which they were first produced. I was slightly disappointed to learn there was no Bob Quonset, hut inventor extraordinaire, but the fact that that Quonset is a Native American place name meaning “small, long place” mostly makes up for that.

Once the war was over, and many of the Quonset-needing soldiers went home, thrifty Hawaii entrepreneurs embraced the sudden surplus of kamaboko houses. Salvage companies bought them from the military, for between $1,000 and $5,000 apiece (which would be roughly $50,000 today, still a bargain), and resold them to the general public as storage, shops and even houses. Former mayor Frank Fasi started his Hawaii career selling kamaboko huts and other military surplus—business was so brisk, the story goes, he had 40 employees by the end of his first year.

Most huts got put to quotidian use, but some architects saw avante garde futurism in the Quonsets’ corrugated metal skin. Most notably, Vlad Ossipoff, who in 1948 stitched together a couple of kits to make a custom house overlooking Kaneohe Bay. “He used the Quonset hut materials as a starting point and did creative things with them,” says architect Tonia Moy, with Fung Associates. “They looked like a can opener had opened up the side, with bent-up metal turned into an awning.” Hawaii Farm and Home called Ossipoff’s design an “architectural triumph.”

Of course, not everyone was a kamaboko fan. “I remember reading a news story in which a woman described Quonset huts as being about as useful and beautiful as a sewer pipe,” Moy says. By 1950, there were enough huts appearing in Manoa, Makiki and elsewhere, and enough concerned citizens protesting, that the City passed an ordinance forbidding them in residential areas.

Today, the outrage seems quaint, what with all the hulking self-storage warehouses overtaking the city. A cute little kamaboko would be a breath of fresh air in comparison. Alas, the world of pre-fabricated structures has moved on. There are more energy-efficient materials than galvanized steel these days, and designs that don’t squander floor space with curved walls. We’ll have to work with the well-worn huts we’ve already got.

Sometime soon, I hope we’ll see them as truly vintage, worthy of saving. Kiersten Faulker, executive director of the Historic Hawaii Foundation, hasn’t yet staked out any specific Quonset huts that need preservation, but says, “They’re definitely on our radar. It’s an interesting debate. Quonsets aren’t necessarily a lovable building type, and there were so many of them at one point, but now it’s getting to be a rare building. That steel isn’t going last forever in this climate.”

Anyone got a spare Quonset they’re not using? I promise to treat it right.