The Trachte Bros. Company

Most people know what Quonset huts are – those plain, utilitarian metal buildings with arched roofs developed for the U.S. Navy and fabricated at the Naval base in Quonset Point, Rhode Island during World War II.  Well, the Quonset hut was designed in 1941 and modeled on the Nissen hut developed by British engineer Peter Nissen around 1917 as an alternative to the tent for British soldiers in World War I.  Nissen, it is believed, was inspired by a similar structure he encountered in 1916 in Queen’s College, Ontario that enclosed a hockey rink.

The University purchased military surplus Quonset huts for student housing in the post-war years.

After the war, US military agencies sold thousands of surplus Quonset huts to the private sector for civilian use. Many ended up in Madison, most notably as temporary housing on the UW campus during the crush of veterans returning to college on the GI Bill. There are still a few in use around town today – 1212 E. Washington Ave, 1431 Regent St. (look at the back side.)

What does this have to do with the Trachte Bros. Company? Well, if you’ve been in Madison for any length of time you’ve probably noticed similar utilitarian metal buildings with arched roofs and flat sides scattered all over town. They’re used as garages, industrial production buildings, utility shelters along train tracks or near electrical transformer stations, some even as commercial storefronts. Those are often mistaken for Quonset huts, but they’re not.  Those are Trachte buildings (pronounced trock’-tee). It seems Madison had its own engineering team on the cutting edge of prefabrication in the early part of the twentieth century. The Trachte brothers, George and Arthur, designed their first little metal building in 1919, just a couple years after Nissen. Actually Arthur designed it as a shelter for new Dodge automobile.

The Trachte brothers started out in 1901 as tinsmiths making pots and pans and dippers.  In 1916, the brothers patented a corrugating machine to roll-form tin sheets, which they used to manufacture a variety of corrugated metal tanks and boxes marketed for agriculture and industrial use. They even sold  “Non-Sinkable corrugated steel boats.”  But they found their greatest success making pre-prefabricated steel buildings. They marketed their automobile garage first and sold many in Madison in the 1920s as automobile ownership was on the rise.  The garage design was quickly adapted to larger and more sophisticated buildings and building sections that were sold throughout the Midwest and southern states. The pre-fabricated metal option was widely adopted in the south and many fire-prone wooden cotton gins were replaced by Trachte steel buildings. By 1930 the Trachte product line had taken on new shapes and sizes with designs for commercial and industrial buildings that were built as warehouses, gas stations, restaurants, airplane hangers, automobile dealerships, store fronts, and even summer cottages.

The company started by George and Arthur is still in business, and the legacy of the company in Madison is still all over town. These all-steel buildings have demonstrated astonishing durability and  longevity.  Many Trachte buildings and building sections, some dating to the 1920s, are still in use around Madison, and many more still stand around the country. These simple, utilitarian buildings often retain much of their original character, probably because their components were specially made by one company and are not practical to repair or replace today.  Some are altered with new siding or false fronts, but with their distinctive arched roofs and vertical sides, they are still easy to spot.

Two telltale signs differentiate Trachtes from Quonset huts. The arched roof of a Trachte building does not go all the way to the ground like a Quonset hut. It meets vertical sides to form a roofline. And the corrugation on the vertical walls of a Trachte building is always  horizontal. On Quonset huts it is often, but not always, vertical.