Time Machine

Quonset huts provided married student housing after World War II

This picture, taken from the back of the Coe College gym in 1946, shows the Quonset hut village being set up for married
This picture, taken from the back of the Coe College gym in 1946, shows the Quonset hut village being set up for married student housing after World War II. The military no longer needed the huts, which were used for temporary housing during the war. Each Quonset hut included two apartments, and each apartment had a kitchen/living room, two bedrooms and a bathroom. (Gazette archives)
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Quonset huts, used as temporary housing by the military during World War II, became student housing on college campuses after the war.

The enrollments at colleges and universities surged when returning soldiers enrolled in college under the GI Bill. Many of them married, and housing was scarce.

Enter the Quonset huts, made of arched, corrugated steel panels.

The military no longer needed the 170,000 huts, which had been manufactured in Rhode Island, and the Lanham Act allowed the units to be sold to the public.

Colleges began signing up for them, mostly to use for married student housing. The federal government retained ownership of the units for two years, with the college acting as administrator and collecting rents. After two years, the colleges owned the units.

Coe’s village

Each of the Quonset huts contained two apartments, with a living room/kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom.

Coe College President Byron S. Hollinshead applied for 13 of the huts — or 26 apartment units. The huts started going up behind the Coe gym in May 1946.

The huts weren’t ready by September when Coe students arrived for classes. Hollinshead urged Cedar Rapids residents to find temporary accommodations for the veterans and their spouses.

One couple, whose lease had run out, moved into one of the units that didn’t yet have plumbing.

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Finally, on Dec. 7, 1946 — Pearl Harbor Day — Coe accepted 15 of the 26 units. The rest were ready the following week.

Coe’s Quonset huts were clustered in an area bordered by railroad tracks and Cedar Lake. Tenants often commented the passing trains tended to wake their sleeping children.

The area was officially named Marquis Court after former Coe President John A. Marquis.

The huts did not have telephones, leading to installation of the city’s first phone booth in the village.

Little privacy

Life in the Quonsets was anything but private. The walls were thin and the metal transmitted sound.

“A loud conversation in the other end of a building is seldom very private,” the Coe Cosmos reported in 1963. “And in summer, when doors and windows are open, ‘you don’t have to turn on your radio if your neighbors beat you to it,’ according to one occupant.”

By the 1960s, the Coe Quonsets were beginning to be sold.

After selling some of them to a developer — who said he wanted them for agricultural buildings — Linn County supervisors discovered the developer planned to turn them into a Chain Lakes housing area. The zoning commission denied that request.

UI Village

The University of Iowa set up a village of 25 Quonset huts — 50 units — south of City Park where Hancher Auditorium now sits.

Overhead electrical wires were installed, and water and sewer pipes laid. The hut sections were shipped to Iowa City by rail, unloaded by crane and moved to the construction site under the supervision of UI architect George Horner and construction superintendent R.H. Wise.

Though the huts were designed to last five years, they were used as married student housing for decades. In 1964, some of the huts became part of the UI Writers’ Workshop near the Iowa Memorial Union.

A few years later, the university began building housing to eliminate the Quonsets.

But UI President Howard Bowen said those efforts were stymied because every time a replacement structure was built, “there are seven other requests to use the Quonset being vacated.”

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In 1971, an attempt to tear down the Quonset huts met with opposition. It took another decade before the last Quonset hut was gone.

A church

Though the huts generally were used for housing, the Catholic Student Center at the UI obtained a 40-by-120-foot Quonset to set up on a concrete slab on North Riverside Drive.

The St. Thomas More Chapel, able to seat 450 students, opened in August 1947. It was heated by overhead forced-air gas heaters. It, too, was meant to last for a few years but wasn’t replaced until 1966 when a new church was built.

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