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Art Deco architecture in Napier, New Zealand

Far from the northern hemisphere cities where C20th design evolved, there is a small city that is uniquely New Zeal­and. In the heart of the Hawke’s Bay wine region on the north island, Napier suffered a massive earthquake in Feb 1931. At 7.8 on the Richter scale, the ground shook viol­ent­ly for only 3 minutes, yet 261 died and the buildings fell over. Thank you Jennifer Nalewicki and Tourism New Zealand.

Hastings St Napier
After the earthquake

Fires broke out across town, but the quake cut the firemen's water supplies. Afraid to enter their homes, surv­iv­ors camped in gardens, roads or beaches. During one fortnight, hundreds of aftershocks were felt in the reg­ion, so women and children were sent to live elsewhere.

Most of the town was destroyed. But since the city lay on one of the world’s most active tectonic fault lines, one wonders why the survivors didn’t leave the city as rubble, moving away for ever.

Thankfully Art Deco was already fashionable, especially for petrol stations, cinemas and bus stations; the style was increasingly inspired by the progress of science, mass manu­fact­uring and streamlining techniques. In reconstructing Nap­ier, Art Deco was both a safe and economical choice. The new con­crete build­ings defied earthquakes and fire, and Deco stucco relief ornamentation was cheap.

The Masonic Hotel

Four Napier architectural firms banded together after the earth quake, to share facilities and to create a united front for the rebuild­ing. Working in lengthy shifts, the design firms were: 1. E A Will­iams fav­our­ed the Art Deco style; 2. Finch & Westerholm designed mainly in the Spanish Mission style; 3. J A Louis Hay was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan; and 4. Natusch & Sons followed the growing modern movement. From their combined efforts, Napier was almost rebuilt within 2 years of the disaster.

Because the town’s ground level was pushed up 3-6’ by the earth­quake, the city’s footprint was increased. 111 new buildings were constructed in the city between 1931-3, the vast majority of the new buildings in the fashionable Art Deco style. But Stripped Classical and Spanish Mission  designs were also employed, as was the frequent use of patterns from Maori art.

Egyptian designs came with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, back in 1922. That style was known for its linear structure and intricate ornam­ent­ation, its geometric motifs favoured chev­rons and zigzags. It was also relatively inexpensive thanks to its basic, squarish designs. This was important since the earthquake struck right during the misery of the Great Depression.

Post-earthquake, a temporary corrugated iron hotel was thrown up. The proper Masonic Hotel was designed by Wellington architect W J Prowse in 1932. It was a sim­ple symmetrical structure on a curved corner, jazzed up only by its elaborate upper storey wooden pergola facing the sea. I liked its bold red MASONIC in Deco capitals, in the canopy at the entrance of the hotel. On the second storey, a balcony over­looks the sea, making this a popular holiday spot where Queen Elizabeth II stayed during her 1953/4 Royal Tour.

Daily Telegraph Building

The two-storey Daily Telegraph Building in Tennyson St was built from 1932 to designs by architect EA Williams, following the trend for symmetrical patterns and geometric design. Built of reinforced conc­rete, the building’s strong vertical lines, ziggurat frame around the front doors, zigzag pattern in the wrought-iron balcony above the entrance, and stylised palm-like designs on each of the pil­as­ters across the façade. Speed stripes acknowledged the age of motor car, and sunbursts suggested the dawn of a new age. By 1933 this two-storey building fun­ctioned as new offices and print fact­ory. The paper folded in 1999, merging with another paper, but The Daily Telegraph lettering still remains. 

Using the Spanish Mission fashion in style, the bright and sunny Criterion Hotel building was completed with spacious balcony in a curved style and Moorish aesthetics. The hipped roof and balcony attracted tourists outside, but the inter­­ior was even more special. A two-storey stairwell was given a stained glass window showing stylised Norfolk pine, and a vast entrance room had deep high fire­places at each end. This luxury hot­el was built in 1932 after the earthquake, and has recently been refurbished. 

Uniting Art Deco with traditional Maori culture, Auckland Sav­ings Bank building was one of the most famous in Napier. An example of the stripped class­ical style, the bank had local pattern in red, black & white forms, a frieze around the top of the walls and ceil­ing bays. The design was focused around the typical meeting house, with corb­els representing ‘the wealth of the tribe’ bord­er­ing the ent­rance. Nods to classical form were seen in ridged columns, criss-crossed knotted banners and gold-accented geometrical shapes.

Halsbury Chambers

The Halsbury Chambers was a modest single storey building. Built in 1932 and located in Tennyson St, the building was rich in decor­at­ion, proudly displaying its name above the entrance. The arrange­ment of rectangular decoration and the stepped roofline gave it a distinctive Deco feel. The photo was actually taken in Feb 1999 when Napier hosted the 5th World Congress on Art Deco – perfect!

The Temperance and General Building, with its rounded tower and clock, was built in 1936. It is now a boutique hotel. The thriving 1938 Municipal Theatre has its original chrome and neon fit­tings, and a cubist carpet faithfully recreated.

The Temperance and General Building

Today the results of the earthquake are still part of the fab­ric of Napier, in the cheerful pastel-coloured Art Deco build­ings that line the city’s streets and dominate Napier’s skyline. In fact Napier’s town centre is recognised as one of the largest coll­ection of Art Deco buildings outside Miami.

To help protect, preserve and promote the rich architectural heritage, the city formed an Art Deco Trust in 1985. Since then the Trust has held an annual Art Deco Weekend in Feb, with jazz concerts, par­ad­es, dances, vintage car shows and architect­ural walking tours. The City’s population is now 62,800.

Napier's Deco shops





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