It is a quiet, late summer mid-morning, February 3, 1931 in the sleepy seaside city of Napier on Hawke’s Bay on New Zealand’s North Island.
Along with businesspeople everywhere, Napier’s shopkeepers have fallen victim to the financial panic and economic depression engulfing the whole world. They stroll leisurely back to their stores after their morning cup of tea. Suddenly the ground heaves and settles. It is quiet for a minute. Two minutes later Napier’s business district is in ruins. Fire is raging through the town fanned by a brisk easterly wind. The water mains are burst and the hydrants are dry. Two hundred and fifty six people lay dead and hundreds more are severely injured.
An earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale has devastated Napier. In addition to the almost total destruction of the downtown core, the seabed of Napier’s harbor has been raised by two meters (six feet), draining the lagoon, marshes and swamps, donating an extra 4,000 hectares (9,900 acres) of land to the city.
With an admirable degree of cooperation between architects and builders, the town is completely rebuilt within two years. And it is rebuilt in a remarkable style, predominantly Art Deco with influences from native Maori motifs and some Spanish mission designs.
Art Deco is the name given to the style, which dominated architectural, interior and utensil design in the twenties and thirties. It takes its name from the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts held in Paris in 1925. It differs from its predecessor, Art Nouveau, in as much as this fin-de-siecle design motif sought to disguise function. Art Deco seeks to make function apparent, while utilizing modern materials such as plastic and chromium.
Not everyone liked Art Deco. It sometimes verged on the vulgar. English writer Aldous Huxley described it as “a mixture of greenhouse and hospital ward, furnished in the style of a dentist’s operating table.” Favorite motifs of Art Deco included geometric patterns and shapes, symbols of power and speed, such as lightning flashes, and leaping deer and dancing women, signifying freedom. The rising sun was the emblem of a new, emancipated age.
Napier today is a fascinating living museum of a bright side of the dirty thirties. Art Deco aficionados from around the world flock here to study their favorite design form. Dr. Neil Cossons, director of the Science Museum in London, England, describes Napier as representing “the most complete and significant group of Art Deco buildings in the world, and it is comparable with Bath as an example of a planned townscape in a cohesive style. Napier is without doubt unique.”
In 1985 the Napier Art Deco Trust was formed largely to protect the city’s architectural heritage from “progressive” developers. The Trust now conducts Art Deco walks and has published a self-guiding “Take a Walk Through Art Deco Napier” booklet.
Certain buildings are worthy of mention. The Rothmans building, built by architect Louis Hay in 1933 for the National Tobacco Company, has magnificent carved doors flanked by sculpted concrete panels in floral design.
Applied decoration is seen at its best in the beautifully maintained AMP Building. Panels of fruit and flower reliefs surround each entrance and run along the roofline. Inside, fruit and flowers are intricately carved into the wood paneling and set into the ceiling corners. The light fixtures have the simplicity and clean lines of late Art Deco.
Above the entrance to the Bank of New Zealand on Hastings Street and the Ministry of Transport building on the corner of Tennyson Street and Church Lane are two distinctive Maori designs. The fern frond pattern symbolizes nature and new growth and the zigzag design represents sea waves.
The Telecom building on Dickens Street was formerly the Post Office. Completed only weeks before the earthquake it was gutted by fire, which could have been extinguished, so the story goes, had there been two buckets of water handy. The upper facade was remodeled in the fifties and the lower windows altered in 1989.
Probably Napier’s finest Art Deco building is the Hotel Central with its beautiful plasterwork. The tiled steps and pressed metal verandah ceilings are worth a close look. A good example of 1980s Art Deco is the UFS Dispensary. It won a New Zealand Institute of Architect’s Design Award in 1985 after being built to replace a Spanish Mission Building.
Any tour of Art Deco Napier should start at the Hawke’s Bay Museum on Marine Parade. As a backgrounder, first see the 20-minute continuous audio-visual presentation “The Great Hawke’s Bay Earthquake.” Then view the exhibition “Newest City on the Globe” which includes many examples of Art Deco design.
Napier, with a population of 57,000, is located in the Hawke’s Bay area on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. It is one of the country’s largest wine and fruit growing regions.
The Hawke’s Bay wine region excels with classic varietals such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and syrah. The local alluvial soils are ideally suited to grape growing, as is the Mediterranean-style climate. Many of the wineries welcome visitors for tasting and cellar door sales – wine trail maps make it easy to find your way around.
The city is 420 kilometers (250 miles) southeast of Auckland. Allow seven to eight hours driving time. Napier is also served from Auckland and other New Zealand cities by Air New Zealand.