Quonset Point Naval Air Station
The word Quonset comes from the eastern Algonquian language of the Native American Narragansett people. Their presence on the site dates from time immemorial to 1709, when the Narragansetts quit-claimed these and other tribal lands under pressure from the English government. Quonset's first European homestead was established around 1671, 147 years after Verrazano's landfall in Narragansett Bay. By 1717 the area had been divided into farming plots purchased by European settlers whose names are still found in landmarks of the present-day Quonset, such as Allen Harbor, Westcott Road, and Sanford Road.
The sharply delineated triangle that marks out Quonset Point on today's maps was formerly a narrow reach of land extending eastward into Narragansett Bay. The original "point" was located near the present-day intersection of Roger Williams Way and Airport Road, on a landmass characterized by low knolls, stream terraces, marshy depressions, rock ledges and woodland areas. It was bordered to the south by a sandy shoreline offering wide views down the Bay. In 1911, this idyllic beachfront setting attracted the attention of real estate developers, who laid out 205 lots for a summer cottage subdivision dubbed "Shore Acres." Camp Happyland, a fresh-air camp for city children and the Romano Vineyard also occupied Quonset Point at this time, along with the Rhode Island State Militia's training camp.
In the 1930's, with the war in Europe underway, the U.S. Government determined that it was at last time to build a long-discussed Northeast Air Station. Quonset Point's protected location in the heart of Narragansett Bay, and its easy access to the Atlantic Ocean, played a strong role in its selection as the site for this new facility.
The Navy began the acquisition of property at Quonset in the summer of 1939. The construction of a fully functional Air Station on Quonset Point would, however, require major changes to the landform itself. Hills were downcut, depressions leveled, and rock formations blasted to create a new landscape whose uniformity allowed for maximum efficiency in the daily functioning of a modern military installation. The Bay immediately surrounding Quonset was dredged to create a turning basin for vessels docked at the newly-built Aircraft Carrier Pier, and the effluvium produced by dredging was used to add an additional 300 acres onto Quonset's original point. The Air Station's triangular runway system was then constructed over the new landmass, creating Quonset Point as the strikingly geometrical landform we see today. By July of 1941, the old Quonset was effectively gone, but despite the scope of the work carried out there, construction of the new base concluded two years ahead of schedule.Neutrality patrol & seaplane hangars
Building 2 was the first Naval structure to rise from the transformed landscape of Quonset Point. Designed by Albert Kahn to house PBY aircraft, it was dubbed the "Neutrality Patrol Hangar" and served as the prototype for Bldgs. 1 & 406, two seaplane hangars located on adjacent land. Together these three enormous structures form a row along Quonset Point's southern shoreline, occupying much of its former beachfront area and claiming its strategic views to the mouth of Narragansett Bay.
The east and west elevation of each hangar was designed with 30' high rolling doors that allowed aircraft to taxi in for maintenance or pass through to the other side when necessary. Each door unit is comprised largely of windows intended to allow plentiful light into the work area. These, however were painted over to comply with blackout conditions that came into effect when the U.S. entered World War II.
In 1997, on our first visit to Building 2, we found the paint throughout its interior curling down in long scrolls, revealing multiple coats in shades of green and blue. The wide expanse of the work floor was littered with trash and feathers from pigeons roosting in the eaves. Seagulls, who had established a rookery on the roof, were busily devouring the tar used to seal the roof. Only a few years before, Building 2 had been an active part of General Dynamics' submarine manufacturing operations, but the general dilapidation created a sense of long years of abandonment. One men's room stall bore the message "USSR WILL WIN," spray painted in red lettering. Many of the windows were still caked with circa-1942 black paint.
In recent years a small ship-building interest has taken lease of Buildings 1 and 2, and both hangars have undergone structural and cosmetic rehabilitation. Although a small radio tower has been removed from Building 1, the words "TORPEDO UNIT" can still be seen on the eastern elevation of Building 2, and both buildings retain much of their original character.Albert Kahn & Modernism
Industrial architect Albert Kahn provided designs for a majority of the personnel-oriented structures at Quonset. Well known at that time for the manufacturing plants he designed for Ford and other Detroit auto companies, in later years he designed many industrial structures for the state-run industries of the Soviet Union. Remaining Albert Kahn structures include the brick Enlisted Barracks (Bldgs. 41-48), Administration Building (Bldg. 7), Officers' Club (Bldg. 12) and Civilian Cafeteria "Murphy's" (Bldg. 15). Though many of the Kahn-designed buildings have been demolished, those that remain still convey the aesthetic coherence of the original base. Kahn's approach to military design was thoroughly modernist in its drive to marry form to function:
Elimination of non-essentials and of all else save the purely utilitarian is imperative. In the very observance of these requirements, however, lies an element which itself makes for an attractive external effect... the direct and frank expression of the functional, the structural element of the industrial building automatically makes for impressive results... Size itself is an important element in design. ...it makes for grandeur and dignity in these mammoth [structures].
The massive changes exerted upon the Quonset landscape, coupled with the stark aesthetic of Kahn's modern designs, led some at the newly activated base to call for decoration. Captain Andrew McFall, Quonset Point's first Commanding Officer, wrote to the Bureau of Aeronautics requesting $50,000 for "grass and some shrubbery" to improve the base. His claim that "the rather sparse appearance of the architecture of the personnel buildings" needed ornamentation was accepted by the bureau, which allocated $35,000 for landscaping. Though they've grown far beyond their intended size and borders, Quonset's plantings retain their separate identity as "landscaping" distinct from a surrounding landscape that has largely gone wild.General Dynamics
The most prominent feature of Quonset's landscape is an enormous hangar-type structure that dwarfs neighboring Buildings 1, 2 and 406. In the years following the decline of the Naval Air Station, the manufacture of nuclear submarines at General Dynamics' Quonset Point site has come to define the majority of activity on the base as a whole. And though GD relinquished use of Buildings 1 and 2 in the early 1990's, it still lays claim to Bldg. 406 and many other structures located around Airport Road and Roger Williams Way.
In most areas of Quonset and Davisville, the occasional "No Photography" sign can safely be regarded as a relic of an earlier era, but the rule is still strictly enforced in the vicinity of any buildings under General Dynamics' control. On many occasions we were met by polite but stern security guards who were concerned that our cameras might be aimed at the wrong thing.
Modern water towers now stand in place of the checkered, barrel-style towers that once distinguished Quonset from the air, the Bay, and nearby roads. Five of the original towers, which appear as landmarks on roadmaps and nautical charts, were demolished in the spring of 1999. Though decrepit in their outward appearance, these structures still proved to be remarkably sound: we watched all morning while demolition contractors attempted to accomplish the job they had told us would take only half an hour. Four tries, three hours, and a truckload of ballast later, the backhoe prevailed and the tower gave way.
Standing in the center of the large open grass field between 4th and 5th Avenues, one is surrounded on three sides by buildings of monumental scale: the landplane hangars to the east, the Kahn-designed barracks to the west, and the rhythmic row of warehouse types to the south. These warehouses are set at regular angles along the 4th Ave. railroad spur, stretching into the distance. Pairs of bowstring truss buildings stand side by side with several monitor gable warehouses. Their rhythmic order is abruptly punctuated by the austerity of Building 16, the Supply Department. The design of this reinforced concrete building was based around one of the latest storehouse technologies the forklift and the new 4' x 4' pallet system.Celestial navigation
Quonset's array of structural mammoths and oddities is compelling in part because of the gesture each makes toward use, a gesture whose meaning becomes estranged as these once-useful buildings slide into decay. One Quonset veteran explained to us that the three vertical sections of Building 457 were used for parachute repair. Another contended that each of the domes contained a replica of the night sky where pilots were trained in night flying. Each explanation suggests an imaginative, form-follows-function approach to interpreting a structure whose use is not immediately evident.
We used this same approach in developing quick-reference names for buildings our maps distinguished only by number. We called this complex "The Silos," a name that reflects the agricultural look of the three towers, and the overall Cold War cast of the site.
Of the three possible explanations for building 457's "silos," the weirdest turns out to be right: the complex was used for celestial navigation.
* Architecture in the National Defense Building Program, Michigan Society of Architects Weekly Bulletin, No. 52, December 30, 1941, p. 52.
© Copyright 2000 Erik Carlson and Erica Carpenter