Preserving Napier's heritage of Art Deco

By Doug Laing

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When Pat Benson returned to Hawke's Bay after dabbling in accountancy at Canterbury University in the late 1970s, he wouldn't have known art deco if he fell over it.

Thus, a quarter-century later he is a little bemused that he is being recognised with a Queen's Service Medal in the New Year Honours for helping protect Napier's unique architectural heritage.

A Hastings and Haumoana lad who's achieved most of his fame and fortune in an equally unique mix of fields, and mainly in Napier, he had thought little of the history of the buildings until he and brothers John and Jim bought the building next to where they'd established Napier Computer Systems in the early 1980s.

"As we pulled it apart we started finding all these things," he said at his Fernhill home. "The architect made us aware of our responsibilities with the architecture."

It was about 20 years later that he made the most significant purchase of a Napier building under threat of demolition - the Daily Telegraph building in Tennyson St.

Along with his brothers, he began by removing a mezzanine floor which had been added in the 1970s, and restored its staircase and balustrade around the original foyer.

Less than a year after he purchased it in 2002, it was recognised with the Art Deco Trust's Supreme Award, and this year Mr Benson received a Napier City Council Civic Award.

He's not particularly "big" on such recognition, he says, but accepts it's "nice" to be acknowledged.

At the time he had already excelled in other spheres, notably rugby in which he was a 1970s Junior All Black prop before returning to the Bay and ultimately captaining the Magpies.

Along the way he also became the ninth person to swim Cook Strait in 1979, in a marathon-swimming career which also saw him complete a 44km crossing of Lake Taupo.

He has continued in the sports, coaching and managing rugby, in which he will be head coach of the MAC premier side next year, having become a life member of the Napier Old Boys Marist Club.

He is also patron of the Ocean Beach Kiwi Surf Lifesaving Club and chairman of the Heretaunga Swimming Club.

A father of five, he recently retired after 11 years as a trustee of Hastings Boys' High School, where his four sons have been pupils.

He also attended Karamu High School, of which the most famed pupil is Sir Paul Holmes, who became a Knight in the honours announced yesterday.

The families were once neighbours near Black Bridge, Haumoana, and Mr Benson's mother babysat the young Holmes.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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