Every town in New Zealand seems to have its share of pastel-coloured early 20th century buildings. But the Art Deco buildings of Napier, on the North Island, are particularly noteworthy. Not just a few scattered buildings, but a whole town of Art Deco architecture.
After the Earthquake: Rebuilding Napier
The Art Deco story in Napier begins with a disaster. A massive earthquake on the morning of 3 February 1931 was followed by a series of fires, destroying the cathedral and most of the shops in the town centre. A major rebuilding programme had to be put into place immediately.
Information boards around the town tell the story of the earthquake and show what Napier looked like before the devastation. After so much destruction the people wanted to put the past behind them and to look to the future. So the architects tried to use the most fresh and modern styles for the reconstruction.
Napier: An Art Deco Town
Most of the new buildings were in the then fashionable Art Deco style, but classical and Spanish Mission designs were also employed. Features from elsewhere were incorporated and, as you might expect, there was frequent use of patterns from Maori art. You might be more surprised to spot Egyptian design features: interest in all things Egyptian was sparked off across the world after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.
As a result the Napier architecture is remarkably homogeneous. And over the years attempts have been made to preserve the original style. So, for instance, shops with modern fronts still retain their Art Deco features on the upper storeys.
You can still find one or two older buildings if you look hard enough. Conservation House (the former courthouse) is a colonial style structure dating from 1873. And the Six Sisters are a row of late Victorian houses on Marine Parade. These were supposedly the work of a builder who wanted a house for each of his six daughters!
Exploring the Art Deco Buildings of Napier
The town was busy, full of vintage cars and people in period dress. We found out later it was the start of the Art Deco Festival, a celebration of the 1920s and 30s that takes place each year.
We began our exploration at the Art Deco Centre, where we picked up a Self Guided Walk leaflet. Then we set off along the main shopping streets, a visual feast of geometric shapes and candy coloured pastels. We walked slowly to take in all the details: the barley twist columns, the zigzags and the patterned glass.
Perhaps best known is the Daily Telegraph Building. This incorporates several elements of Art Deco style, with straight lines, ziggurats and classic light fittings in the foyer. The other “must see” building is the ASB Bank, where we stepped inside to admire the Maori influenced carvings and painted designs.
Later we stopped at the 1930s style bar of the Masonic Hotel. Outside the hotel festival-goers with big hats and colourful parasols were climbing out of their classic cars. It was as if we were in a place where time had stood still.
You might also enjoy: