From the crumbling ruins of New Zealand’s worst-ever disaster—the 1931 earthquake—emerged what is fast becoming one of the country’s crowning glories: an art deco jewel. When you think art deco by the sea, you probably conjure up Miami Beach. Think again. The small city of Napier, tucked away in Hawke’s Bay on New Zealand’s North Island, has one of the best collections of art deco architecture anywhere in the world.
Napier has 140 wonderful buildings in this bright-and-breezy style, and most of the city’s art deco gems are in pristine condition. As you stroll past the coloured façades—in shades of cream, buff, ochre, pink, green and blue—topped with sunbursts, ziggurats, wave formations, geometric shapes and Maori-inspired motifs, you feel like a character in a made-up world. The town seems fictional, but it’s not.
This architectural treasure trove attracts art deco buffs and the plainly curious from all over the world. The Geon Brebner Print Art Deco Weekend held every February remains one of the biggest parties in the country, with thousands of people flocking to the region to plug into a little of the free spirit that defined high living in the 1930s: deco duds, a little jazz, a few cocktails and some classic cars.
Yet there is a bitter side—namely, the natural disaster behind Napier’s rebirth. On the morning of February 3, 1931, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale occurred. The city was heaved upward approximately two metres, causing the water in the inner harbour to drain out to sea. The quake destroyed much of the brick-built city, killing and injuring hundreds in the region. Fires engulfed the stricken areas, and continued to burn for 36 hours, reducing the town to a zone of rubble and destruction.
While it would have been all too tempting to walk away from the ruins of the past or to recreate what was gone, the indomitable spirit of Napier triumphed, and the survivors embraced a new way forward. By 1933, after a rebuilding effort that was nothing short of remarkable, Napier stood proud as the “newest city on the globe”, with buildings erected in various 1930s styles. Now it is a thriving hub where the transactions of modern life take place right in the heart of history.
The architect charged with Napier’s redesign, Louis Hay, took his inspiration from Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Why art deco? “Art deco was not only fashionable, it was also safer than bricks and mortar in the event of another earthquake,” says Napier ambassador Clarence “Bertie” Bertram St. John Fitz Montague.
Bertie explains that the stucco façades, cloaked in their playful colours, conceal a strong, reinforced-concrete skeleton, free of decorative attachments and therefore safer in the event of an earthquake. “Art deco was also cheap to build, being basically a concrete box with trimmings. In the midst of the Depression, cost was an important factor,” he says.
The Art Deco Trust, formed in the mid-1980s, grew out of the realization of a few locals that Napier had something special to offer that was gradually being lost to the bulldozer. Not only do the keen local volunteers making up the Trust provide walking tours and information to visitors, they have been highly successful in persuading owners of art deco buildings to renovate with care and choose appropriate colour schemes for their façades. Perhaps the Trust’s greatest triumph was persuading the mighty McDonald’s to rebuild—in full McDeco style.
Thanks to the Trust, art deco is now Napier’s calling card; it’s good for business (it pulls in the tourists), and good for morale, too. “A sprinkle of the people that visit are interested in the design, but people want a little bit of history,” says Bertie, “and they can’t get it anywhere else.” Nowhere can you see such a variety of buildings in the styles of the 1930s—Classical Revival, Spanish Mission, Stripped Classical, Prairie and International styles, Chicago School, and above all art deco—in such a concentrated area. Framed by dramatic hills and the shores of the South Pacific, beautiful Napier has a modern vibrancy that is colourful, classic and unique.
Photos ©Art Deco Trust.