Napier’s Art Deco Allure

Coming from Christchurch, where the road to full recovery remains long and winding, the stark comparisons to Napier’s swift and spectacular post-quake legacy is inescapable. Although to be fair, the Christchurch rebuild is on a much more monumental scale. Plucky Napier is proof positive that with a little bit of vision, every cloud has a silver lining.

Napier’s darkest and deadliest days, namely the 1931 earthquake, profoundly altered the future course of the Hawkes Bay. In the wake of the devastating quake and fire that razed most of Napier’s city centre, the speedy move to rebuild in predominantly low-rise Art Deco style, which was a la mode in the 1930s, was a truly inspired choice.

Two years later, in 1933, the reconstructed city centre emerged from the blank canvas. Bestowing Napier with one of the world’s greatest collections of stately Art Deco, with some Spanish Mission and Stripped Classical architecture thrown in for good measure, the throng of camera-clicking international visitors marvelling at the streetscapes is ever-present.
Bathed in a palette of soft pastel colours, it’s the stylised detailing on the building facades spanning ancient Egyptian and Mayan motifs like zigzags and ziggurats, sunbursts and lightning bolts, that makes Art Deco so intriguingly eye-catching. Napier is the kind of city where a flip-top head wouldn’t go amiss. I ended up walking its storied streets with my head in permanent recline, gazing in admiration at all the geometric and whimsical shapes, ornamenting the buildings.
But there’s only so much the untrained eye can decode. The best way to enrich your understanding of the architecture and to scratch beneath Napier’s surface is to join a guided walking tour hosted by the Art Deco Trust. It was $19 well invested. My lovely guide, Mathilde, led our group on an illuminating exploratory through Napier’s architectural confections, eagerly helping us decipher the variety of period designs and ornamental motifs. I soon knew my zigzag from my ziggurat.

Sun bursts symbolised the dawn of a new age and the reason so many Egyptian, Mayan and Aztec shapes were in vogue was because there so many excavations and discoveries at the time, from the ancient world. Leadlight windows were a hugely popular design feature in Art Deco, as were repetitive geometric patterns and the speed lines, that grace many buildings.

Mathilde also pointed out the magnificent pressed metal ceilings, in wondrous cream patterns, that grace the verandas of many of the shops. I had never noticed how beautiful they are. Emerson, Tennyson and Hastings Streets are home to most of the 140 original Art Deco buildings.

One of my favourites is the ASB building, which was formerly the Bank of New Zealand, and was the first Art Deco building in the world to incorporate Maori design. The repetitive design of the tukutuku patterning works so well as an Art Deco motif. I was somewhat surprised to notice that many of these treasures are currently for sale, including the spectacular Pink House, a mix of Art Deco and Spanish Mission styles, which has previously been a strip club and a brothel.

Star specimens on the walking tour include the T&G Building with its iconic copper dome, the Provincial Hotel, the Daily Telegraph and the Masonic Hotel, which was fully rebuilt after the quake. The Queen stayed here during here coronation tour of the country, while other luminaries to have graced the Masonic include Mark Twain.

Originally built in 1861, Mathilde pointed out that prior to the earthquake hotel guests could stand on the balcony and try their hand at skimming stones across the beach. The waterline was that close. In a formidable illustration of the power of nature, it’s remarkable how far back the shoreline retreated as a result of the earthquake.

The land and seafloor lifted by as much as 2.7 metres, endowing the wider region with a substantial amount of “new” and useable land. Beautiful Marine Parade, studded with those famous Norfolk Pines that were planted in 1881, flanks the beach. All of the earthquake rubble was deposited alongside Marine Parade, stretching for 1.5km.
That burial ground is now what all of Napier’s celebrated oceanside public amenities now sit on top of, like the sound shell, sunken garden, national aquarium, the mini golf course and pool complex.

It’s also where you’ll find the visitor information centre ( i-Site), from where the Hawkes Bay Express commences its fabulous city tours. Established three years ago by Will van Asch and his wife, Krysia, this period furnished road train sightseeing tour is very much a family affair. In fact, it took Will and his father two years to build the carriages, artfully dressed in period style.

This custom designed road train is splendidly crafted like an old-fashioned steam engine, while the luxurious carriage interiors exude the romantic atmosphere of the opulent Art Deco era. The 90 minute tours traverse Napier’s top sights and lesser known finds, while Will, a naturally gifted raconteur, unleashes his spirited and entertaining patter, spilling stories and insights about Napier’s compelling story.

Our very own Little Mermaid story is a tear-jerking tale about Pania, a sea dweller, who fell in love with the land-dwelling Karitoke. But homesick Pania returned to the sea to see her family, who trapped her in an underground ocean cave, where Pania became a reef, her arms forever reaching out for Karitoke. Adjacent to the gorgeous statute is the expansive New Napier Arch, constructed as a memorial to the city’s renaissance and the lives lost, following the quake.

We paused to admire the Six Sisters, a clutch of cheerfully painted wooden buildings on Marine Parade, which managed to survive the tragedy. Another obligatory photo stop is the blue- metal arch on the beachfront, which symbolises the spot and the angle of the millennium’s first sunrise.

After tootling through the city centre, the Hawkes Bay Express heads over leafy Bluff Hill, studded with gorgeous old colonial villas and early settler cottages – many that withstood the seismic storm, because they were built in wood. But the biggest thrill was the chance to step inside the wood-carved doors of National Tobacco Building.

Formerly the headquarters for Rothmans in New Zealand, the property was purchased by Big Save Furniture’s Alison McKimm eight years ago. Widely considered the Art Deco superstar of Napier, locals will tell you it’s one of New Zealand’s most photographed buildings. It certainly deserves to be. The architectural masterpiece is ornamented with delicate art deco motifs across its facade, incorporating local rose varieties with long stems, bulrushes and Hawkes Bay grapevines into its exterior sculpture work.

The interior drips with old-school opulence; a grand marble entrance hall, dark wood panelling, brasswork, elaborate carvings, leadlight and a soaring glass cupola. Will told us that the largely unused building is being sized up as being repurposed as a luxury boutique hotel. His two hour sightseeing tour is a must. Hawkes Bay Express website.
Will from Hawkes Bay Express pointed out the few surviving buildings from the 1931 quake, within the city centre. The stately, neo-classical Public Trust Office, built in 1929, is pure class and stood the savagery of nature due to its construction in reinforced concrete.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover my lodgings in Napier, were also a quake survivor, thanks to its sturdy bones of reinforced concrete, the Quest Napier. This charming Spanish Mission style building, built in 1919, was lovingly restored and remodelled by Quest , which opened its doors six years ago.

I love the grandeur of the original front section, featuring high ceilings and native New Zealand matai flooring. Stylish and sympathetic furnishings in all apartments successfully blend the old and the new throughout the property. The apartment style hotel offers a range of configurations, including interconnecting two bedroom apartments. For extra wow-factor, request one of the balcony rooms on the top floor. Whether you’re just bedding down overnight or having a long-stay break, the slew of in-room and on-site facilities is stunning. Lording over Dickens St, you’re centrally located within striking distance of all of those uplifting Art Deco delights. www.hawkesbaynz.com

By Mike Yardley.

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