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Notes on the Geography of New Zealand: Napier

Devastated by an earthquake coming in the worst of times--1931--Napier rebuilt quickly, ambitiously, but modestly. The result was a district of low buildings of reinforced concrete in a surprisingly consistent and popular decorative style. (Art Deco on the cheap, if you're snide.) Forty years later, people began to notice the assemblage. Heather Ives published The Art Deco Architecture of Napier and Peter Shaw and Peter Hallett published Art Deco Napier . A historic area was designated in 1983, a Napier Art Deco trust was created in 1985, and the Fifth World Congress on Art Deco was held in Napier in 1999.

Efforts to get the city on UNESCO's World Heritage list bogged down, however. A government-hired consultant was strict in his application of UNESCO's criteria. In his report, he wrote that the city's buildings are "at best described as routine." He went on, mercilessly, to say that "none [are] of particular significance." Still, the town, population 60,000 today, has hitched its tourism wagon to heritage, and the central blocks are very tiddly.

For the damning report, see Ian Lochhead, Art Deco Napier, 2011.

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New Zealand: Napier picture 1

We're on our way across the North Island to the east coast. Can't ignore the most famous local product.

New Zealand: Napier picture 2

Here, in Napier, is where that product leaves the island. About a billion dollars (NZ) worth of meat, mostly lamb, heads out annually. Biggest destination: China, of course.

New Zealand: Napier picture 3

That last photo was taken from the top of Napier Hill, once called Scinde Island. Strange for an island to become a hill, but the hill was linked to the mainland only by two spits. That ended very abruptly on the 3rd of February, 1931, when 40 square miles of seafloor (most of it lagoon) became dry land, courtesy of a 7.9 earthquake.

New Zealand: Napier picture 4

Here's the bay to the south, visited by none other than Captain Cook in 1769. Napier was established in 1854 and named for the British general who a few years earlier had done battle in India and emerged as the conqueror of Sind--or Scinde, as it was then often spelled (or spelt).

New Zealand: Napier picture 5

First thing we see, besides the Scenic Hotel Te Pania, is a monument not to the earthquake but to an earlier disaster.

New Zealand: Napier picture 6

Clive, about five miles to the south, is a tiny place named after another imperial giant, though most people in Napier are unlikely to make the connection. Isn't it true? Places get named after famous people, and then the people for which they're named are more or less forgotten. The town (or street) name lives on.

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Another monument, this one prompted by the Boer War. Beyond it is the T&G ("Temperance and General") Building, built for the insurance company of that name, which operated in Australia and New Zealand. The company is long gone, and the property is now a mixture of restaurants and apartments. The rooftop addition was added in 2004; the rest of the building was completed in 1936, near the tail end of the construction boom created by the earthquake.

New Zealand: Napier picture 8

The first contingent of New Zealand troops to fight overseas set out for South Africa at the end of 1899. Of the 6,500 men who went, about 200 died.

New Zealand: Napier picture 9

The monument has its own story of destruction and rebuilding.

New Zealand: Napier picture 10

The Masonic Hotel faces the monument. After the earthquake, building codes were tightened. Even so, the preference has been to build no more than two stories. In this case, a third floor was planned but never built.

New Zealand: Napier picture 11

Persistance. Brown served as Napier's member of parliament from 1908 to 1922 and was mayor of Napier for 18 years, including the year of the quake. In 1933, Brown ran for mayor once again but lost to the head of the earthquake relief committee.

New Zealand: Napier picture 12

Old photos show the 1896 hotel with three stories in brick, trimmed with cast-iron balconies running the full length of each floor on the front side of the building. The replacement was more modest, though graced by a pergola and a Deco font.

New Zealand: Napier picture 13

Side entrance.

New Zealand: Napier picture 14


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You might be forgiven if you looked at all the hotel's computer terminals and display panels and thought you had stumbled onto a trading floor.

New Zealand: Napier picture 16

One of the most elegant buildings in town, National Tobacco was founded in 1922 by Gerhard Huscheer, and it was he who after the earthquake turned to the local architect Louis Hay. The new building was finished in 1933. Two decades later, Huscheer sold the company to Rothmans, which ran it for almost 50 years--two billion cigarettes annually--before announcing in 2005 that the plant would close, its product to be replaced by Australian cigarettes. By then, however, the old building was already recognized as a monument. It had been refurbished in 1995 and the name restored to National Tobacco in 2001.

New Zealand: Napier picture 17

The door is framed by native rushes and roses.

New Zealand: Napier picture 18

The old newspaper office, destroyed in the quake, was rebuilt in 1933. It now houses a realty office.

New Zealand: Napier picture 19


New Zealand: Napier picture 20

The municipal theater, built in 1912, was rebuilt by 1937.

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New Zealand: Napier picture 22

Lobby lighting.

New Zealand: Napier picture 23

One of many office and shop buildings built of reinforced concrete and trimmed with inexpensive deco elements. There's no Miami Beach extravagance here.

New Zealand: Napier picture 24

Interesting logo. Hawke's Bay embraces not only Napier but the adjoining and slightly larger town of Hastings. The name was chosen by Cook and refers to Admiral of the Fleet, First Baron Hawke.

New Zealand: Napier picture 25

Although the facade is as it was in 1932, the tenants have been on a merry-go-round beginning with one Tom Parker, who sold menswear. It just sounds like a Dickensian law office.

New Zealand: Napier picture 26

Thorp sold shoes here until the early 1990s. Then the store became a coffee house and then a pizzeria and then....

New Zealand: Napier picture 27

A striking font on the former Robert Holt Building from 1933; the store downstairs sold building supplies until the 1960s.

New Zealand: Napier picture 28

The 1932 Scinde Building, originally a Masonic temple, is another reference to Napier's India.

New Zealand: Napier picture 29

Amazing what a difference a good paint job can do. This is the modest but neat Concord House, 1934.

New Zealand: Napier picture 30

You can see why some critics aren't prepared to go the UNESCO mile: this is pretty bland stuff. This bit was built in 1933 as Blythe's Building and housed drapers and a furniture store until it became the local branch of Farmers, a ubiquitous New Zealand chain store. They've moved on, but the building's discovered the Fountain of Youth and looks as good (maybe better) than it did when new.

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