Napier – New Zealand's Art Deco capital

Far from the world's great population centres in Europe and America, where 20th Century design evolved, lies a small city that is uniquely New Zealand.

Napier, in the heart of the Hawke’s Bay wine region, suffered a massive earthquake in 1931. The quake and the fires that followed destroyed most of the town, but by the end of the decade Napier had the newest city centre on the globe.

Today, Napier's town centre is recognised as one of the largest collection of Art Deco buildings outside Miami. Nowhere else in the Southern Hemisphere has such a concentration of buildings in the styles of the 1930s - Stripped Classical, Spanish Mission and especially Art Deco.

Tragedy to treasure

Ironically, today's architectural treasure was created from tragedy.

At 10.46am on 3 February 1931, Napier and its surrounding region were struck by an earthquake that measured 7.8 on the Richter scale. While the ground shook violently for less than three minutes, 261 lives were lost as the ground moved and buildings crumbled around inhabitants.

Fires broke out all over town, some beginning in chemist shops where gas jets were close to flammable liquids. Firemen could do little to stop the rapid spread as water supplies had been cut in the earthquake.

Afraid to enter their homes, the survivors camped afterwards in their gardens, on roadsides, at Nelson Park and on Marine Parade beach. Over the next two weeks, 525 aftershocks were felt in the region.

As a result of the earthquake, the Napier area tilted upwards - a maximum of just over 2m (7 feet) - and 2230 hectares (5575 acres) were raised to sea level. Since then, the area has continued to creep up at the rate of 1cm per year, so that it's now 60cms (2 feet) above sea level.

Reconstructing Napier

Art Deco was fashionable in the 1920s. The architectural style is characterised by the skyscraper shape, sunbursts and fountains, and geometric shapes.

In post-earthquake Napier, Art Deco was both a safe and economical choice. The new concrete buildings were more resistant to earthquakes and fire, materials were cheap and the stucco relief ornaments typical of Art Deco offered a less costly form of decoration.

Four Napier architectural firms banded together after the earthquake to share facilities and create a united front for the rebuilding task. Working in shifts around the clock, they continued to design the buildings individually. These firms were:

  • E A Williams favored the Art Deco style
  • Finch & Westerholm designed mainly in the Spanish Mission style
  • J A Louis Hay - inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louis Sullivan
  • Natusch & Sons followed the growing modern movement.

As a result of their combined efforts, Napier was almost rebuilt within two years of the disaster.

Reliving the past

By the late 1930s, Art Deco was in its 'Streamline' or 'Streamline Moderne' phase, inspired by the progress of science, mass manufacturing (streamlining) techniques.

The 1960s saw Art Deco 'rediscovered' as a symbol of the vigor and optimism of the Roaring Twenties.

Art Deco Weekend

Nostalgia lives on in Napier. An Art Deco Trust was established in 1985 to promote and preserve what is now recognised as a world-class collection of Art Deco architecture.

The trust offers a variety of activities such as guided historical walks and vintage cars tours.

The annual highlight is the Art Deco Weekend held on the third weekend of February when the town turns back the clock and dresses in its deco finest.

Vintage vehicles and planes, picnics and jazz concerts, parades and dancing in the street, good food and wine are some of more than 100 events that help celebrate Napier's unique heritage.

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