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Post-World War II stopgap structures finally bowing out

From Perspective
July 2004 edition

For four barracks buildings on the West Lafayette campus, "temporary" turned out to mean 56, almost 57, years – a few more than originally expected.

Quonset hut
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They were the last cluster of temporaries on campus, standing near Stadium and Northwestern avenues, and it took from February to June this year to dismantle them with asbestos-caution methods. When they went up in summer 1947 with four other like buildings in the same area, they joined dozens of other stopgap structures rising to meet the flood of students on the GI Bill of Rights.

Purdue went from 3,356 students in March 1945 to 11,472 in October 1946. The swelling enrollment turned many things upside down. Women students, who were a slight majority while many young men were off to war, increased in number but still suddenly found themselves in a 1:5 ratio. Many single students lived in overcrowded quarters on and off campus; Cary Quadrangle went from 936 residents before the war to 2,050 men in 1946 by crowding beds into single rooms and attics. Other students left temporary cottages in the mornings to attend classes in temporary buildings.

The University couldn’t raise new buildings fast enough. Supplies were often short and many other universities, facing similar growth, were clamoring for materials, too.

Though the temporaries in general sometimes evoke the term Quonset hut – a sort of small-scale airplane hangar with arching roof – not all that many were Quonset huts. The last QH on the central campus came down in 1969, and the last one at the airport in 1999.

But all temporaries were comparatively spartan, and as often happens, that helped people focus on the basic issue: education.

Jack and Martha Woolf lived in a neighborhood of three- and four-unit frame buildings just southwest of the corner of State Street and Airport Road. Converted barracks in part, the buildings provided 598 apartments for married students and staff, plus space for 272 single students. The Woolfs pulled a little trailer from Texas A&M in 1948 so he could pursue a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Purdue, which he earned in 1951.

"I thought I was going to the end of the world," recalls Martha Woolf. "My grandma’s old Singer sewing machine just fell apart as Jim Blakesley was helping us unload."

She worked in the Poultry Department office until 1950, when their first child was born. Like everyone else in the Federal Public Housing Authority units, she remembers sounds.

"The walls were so thin," she says. "We lived next to Walt and Ruth Wood, now in Albuquerque. We’d bang on the wall and say, ‘What are you having for lunch?’ and they’d say ‘Soup and sandwiches again.’

"On Saturdays we’d pull our chairs out in the open area and visit. We all had little children and not much money to go to movies. That’s why we made such lasting friendships."

Jack Woolf remembers a tree swing in that open area. Blakesley, then a neighbor and still a friend of the Woolfs, adds, "There were two tons of sand for kids. They tracked it in and we swept it into the cracks in the floor, which helped fill it in."

Woolf also remembers their washing machine shaking the whole building. As a graduate student and instructor, he had an office in a temporary rectangular building in the engineering area, but he recalls it as unremarkable. Like many of his friends, he found a level of focus that carried him far – including 10 years as president of the University of Texas-Arlington.

Another president came out of those experiences, namely Arthur Hansen, the only Purdue alumnus to serve as Purdue president (1971-82). Hansen finished his bachelor’s degree in 1946 in electrical engineering, the major selected for him when he joined the Marines’ V-12 training program during the war. Initially he lived in Cary Quadrangle. He earned a master’s in mathematics in 1948.

Short on cash in 1946 after graduating, he joined a union so he could work on constructing the barracks that lasted 56 years.

"I met people I wouldn’t have met otherwise," he says. "These were good, hard-working people." He describes himself as low-cost labor to do routine work such as moving plywood or unloading pipes and putting them in the ground. Except that as a grocer’s son, he found the work not routine at first.

"The second day, I unloaded 200-pound radiators," he says. "I wasn’t used to that." Another time, he started digging a six-foot-deep pipe trench by starting down six feet. The more seasoned workers told him to go down one foot for the entire 15-foot length, then go down another foot. It’s safer.

Despite such experiences, Hansen says, "The temporaries were such a part of the scene, you didn’t think about them."

What he did think about was his challenge, upon becoming a graduate teaching assistant, in imparting knowledge to students older than himself.

"These hardened vets were coming back from the South Pacific," Hansen says. "Teaching them wasn’t easy." They didn’t openly challenge or defy him, but they did expect a lot, and some had been out of school several years.

"These guys were no nonsense," he says. "They were serious and wanted that education."

His V-12 experience helped him understand their drive and discipline. He had earned his degree in 33 months, having only one week off each summer.

"We ran at the crack of dawn, and drill was on Saturday," he says. "My greatest joy was getting my own iron and ironing board so I could pass my inspection."

His V-12 training also put him in position to become a platoon leader, and he remembers a time that one South Pacific veteran in his platoon was called out to receive a Silver Star.

Hansen had decided on college when a teacher whetted his appetite for mathematics. When, as a graduate student, he saw a job advertisement by NASA’s predecessor that called for a math background, he sought and gained the job in Cleveland. Though commissioned and in the reserves since 1946, his work on jet engines kept him from being sent to Korea.

Though the campus male-female ratio tipped after World War II, the entering class of 1946 included a young woman named Nancy, whom he had met earlier through her sister. He taught her algebra class and they dated some. In 1972, they married.

Blakesley, who was president of the Class of 1950, also finished his degree in three years including the two summers between. He remembers people being highly goal-oriented, and he says their can-do attitude had grown from experience and maturity.

"I think 18- and 19-year-olds can do more than they think," he says. "At 19, I was commanding a B-24 bomber." And people knew there were things needing to be done in the world.

After he returned to the states, a counselor at Cal Tech asked him whether he wanted to work with people, money or ideas. Blakesley said people and ideas; the man said Purdue was a good place. Blakesley decided to look into it and ended up in industrial engineering.

Later he was longtime head of the Office of Space Management and Academic Scheduling, systematizing its work in a modern way. He is highly attuned to how buildings are used.

"The barracks were flexible for arrangement inside," he says. "People could do messy things and really anything they wanted to do because nobody cared if something got on the walls."

In those early years, many types of classes met in the barracks, but chemistry labs were the most frequent. Physics, Navy Science and personnel offices also used space there.

"In chemistry, they tried to keep class sizes to 24," Blakesley notes. "It was very tight, and if you bent over, you hit another student. Frank Martin, our professor, deserves credit for an excellent job."

Back at the residences, he says, the children who used the swing and sandpile were getting new siblings and playmates as the baby boomers, well, boomed.

"One summer I took three women to deliver babies," Blakesley says. "The hospital staff started getting concerned."

He says that once units were built and people were sheltered, Purdue and the residents made efforts at improvements.

"I think originally some units had pot-bellied stoves, then they put in gas units with water," he says.

"We started with an icebox, where the guy brings the ice in. Later we got a refrigerator, which was a major improvement for Rosemary. We’d put down papers when the ice guy came, but for some reason he didn’t like to walk on the paper, so he’d carry the ice across the rug."

He also recollects that some neighbors would pull the shades so people wouldn’t know the man was doing the ironing.

No units had air conditioning, however, so Blakesley built a fan, he says, "but when I turned it on, it almost took the side of the house with it."

The postwar space crunch on campus was so abrupt and huge that many other temporary solutions sprang up. On Cherry Lane, Purdue set up a trailer camp for 106 trailers, providing a common bathhouse and washroom. There were barracks set up to house 300 on Stadium Avenue, 300 near Vawter Hall, several hundred farther west where Harrison Hall now stands, and 240 south on Grant Street where Freehafer Hall now stands.

Perhaps Purdue’s finest move on the housing front was the development of the "black and whites," 150 houses for the burgeoning faculty and staff along State Street where Purdue Village has been. The designer was housing innovator Carl F. Boester, whom David Ross brought to Purdue in 1940 to work with the Purdue Research Foundation. President Frederick Hovde asked Boester to build the homes for $2,000 apiece. He whittled down something he planned for postwar markets and did it for $2,006.

National Homes fabricated 24 components per black-and-white in the Armory and the K.H. Kettlehut Co. erected the houses four per day. They had 24-inch centers on their 2-by-6-inch floor joists, and they used the relatively new insulation called fiberglass, invented by Purdue graduate Games Slayter. When the houses were razed in the mid-1950s, some people didn’t want to move.

In March 1972, a fire in Matthews Hall (then called Home Ec II) forced relocation of Creative Arts offices to the four barracks – temporarily, of course – where artists could do their type of "messy things." But in 1975, the buildings, which had been labeled FWA (Federal Works Administration) 1, 2, 4 and 5, were renamed Creative Arts Buildings. The visual arts program stayed there until last year, setting up classrooms, studios, offices and a gallery. Now the program is in the new Visual and Performing Arts Building on Wood Street between Sheetz and Marsteller.

CA 3, once the Geosciences Annex, continues to stand between Schleman Hall and the Heine Pharmacy Building. The five temporaries had more than 50,000 assignable square feet and cost a combined $395,200 in 1947.

Taking down four of them in 2004 cost $289,600, says Lewie Wallace, construction superintendent in Physical Facilities’ engineering, utilities and construction section. That was the amount of the contract with Dore and Associates of Bay City, Mich., "for complete demolition, removal of special materials, cleanup and capping of utilities at the street," Wallace says.

The special materials consist mainly of transite, an asbestos cement board, which was used in the walls and roof. Though unsuspected of health risks in 1947, today asbestos requires special handling and monitoring.

Dore’s work is ending in mid-July, leaving the site ready for construction of the $46 million Millennium Engineering Building. That space will be home to the administration of the College of Engineering, its new Department of Engineering Education and others of its programs. Solicitation of bids is scheduled for this fall.


Story by Dan Howell

Photographs provided by Special Collections


Cutline: This Quonset hut at the north end of the Armory was an ROTC classroom when space inside the Armory was at a premium. Photo undated.