Friday, April 15, 2016

The Quonset

My sisters and I have been in Illinois over the past few days, attending a memorial service for a cousin, whose death reminded us all that there is no time for visiting friends and family like now. My dad grew up in the vicinity of Waukegan, Illinois and although we didn't grow up there ourselves, we have visited the area all my life. While traveling along the road between Gurnee and Waukegan, my nephews were pointing out all the business names that you don't see in California, which is probably how we happened to notice  the sign for The Quonset.

We ofthe older generation immediately remembered our cousins often saying that they were "going to Quonset for pizza". As it happened, a couple of days later, one of my relatives had us over and had the iconic Quonset pizza delivered, in the Chicago thin crust style. We had no problem devouring almost all of it.

At some point in our journey someone asked, what's a quonset? I knew that at least the Quonset hut had a military origin, but at the moment, I couldn't quite visualize one. Certainly The Quonset itself gave us no clues.

But it turns out that anyone who's ever watched a Gomer Pyle rerun knows what a Quonset hut is.

According to,  this is "the westward view of the set of Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., directly across the road from "Wally's Service Station," with Culver City residences visible in the  background".

Wikipedia tells us that the Quonset hut was an American variation on the British Nissen hut, which had been developed by Peter Norman Nissen during World War I. A site called Quonset: Metal Living for a Modern Age says that the American Quonset hut, built originally for use in World War II, was almost identical to the Nissen hut with its corrugated steel outer walls, but a key difference was that the interior wall was of Masonite and the hut was insulated with paper between the inner and outer walls, while the British system used air between the two walls as the insulating factor. Both types of huts were originally 16' by 36', though later versions varied from these dimensions. As this same website tells us: 

Less than three months after initiating the hut design project, the U.S. military had in its arsenal a new demountable structure that could be shipped in twelve crates and put up in one day by ten men. It required no special skills to erect.

And the difference between the Quonset hut and the Nissen hut is evident in this anecdote from the George A. Fuller Company, which the U.S. Navy contracted to manufacture the huts, about some Quonset huts that had been sent to Iceland:

 A night gale of hurricane proportion that wrecked shipping in the harbor, tossed crumpled PBYs on the beach like paper hats, and ripped the covering completely off of many British Nissen huts, left the Quonset huts practically undamaged.

598th Engineer Base Depot in Japan, post-World War II

The Quonset hut was named after Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island, where these huts were first built in 1941. It's interesting if probably coincidental that the word quonset comes from an Algonquian language and most likely means something like a "long, small place." Whether or not it's meant to, this sounds an awful lot like an indigenous North American longhouse, which in turns looks an awful lot like a Quonset hut. Peter Nissen, though inventing the Nissen hut in England, was actually born in America and grew up in Canada, so maybe this is not as much as a coincidence as we might think. 

Powhatan Village, a re-creation in Virginia
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So why was the Waukegan pizzeria called The Quonset? I decided to do a little research into the restaurant itself. I came across an article from the Chicago Tribune entitled "Quonset's Menu is Limited, but That's the Whole Idea." It was written in 1994 and was a special to the Tribune. Much to my surprise, it was not only written by someone I knew, but by the very person who had served us Quonset pizza a few days before. Virginia Mullery is a writer and journalist who once wrote a book about Waukegan and has had a long and active journalistic career in the Lake Michigan region. She was married to John Mullery, who, though a first cousin, was actually more of a brother to my father, so in any important sense, she is my aunt. Here's what she wrote about the restaurant's history:

When Steve Mirretti and Joe Ambrogio were discharged from military service in 1946, they returned home, bought a government-issue Quonset hut and opened a tavern, adding the food 10 years later. The same long bar runs the length of one side, booths line the other. A package goods store and carryout counter eventually were added at one end, then a dining room at the opposite end.
The outside was bricked over, and the roof line no longer resembles a Quonset hut, and for a time neither did the interior. But in a remodeling two years ago, according to Joe Mirretti, who became his father's partner when Ambrogio died in 1984, the original arc ceiling was uncovered. Floral drapes, de rigeur for lounges in the '50s, were added to recapture the original ambience of the Quonset.
The Quonset, interior
To be honest, I haven't been inside The Quonset recently enough to know if it endures in this form or has had another interior renovation since. I do know, though, that as of this week, they are still serving good pizza, same as ever.