Napier: Rebuilt and resilient

By Helen Van Berkel

Helen Van Berkel has an art deco education, from the back of an original Packard.
The National Tobacco Company Ltd building, in Napier. Photo / Russell James Smith
The National Tobacco Company Ltd building, in Napier. Photo / Russell James Smith

There's a ziggurat! That one has eyebrows! Look at that nautical theme! After our tour of Napier's art deco riches, we fancied ourselves as experts of the features that marked this oh-so-elegant aesthetic.

Going to Napier and not exclaiming over its architecture is like going to Anaheim and not going to Disneyland. I thought I knew all about art deco, as Napier was a popular holiday spot for my family when I was growing up.

But as soon as my guide pointed out an ingo, I learned that seeing the city from Dad's Cortina cannot compare to a tour in an original Packard with an Art Deco Trust expert and a giant flip board. Now I know an ingo is the recessed entry to a store and is another feature of the aesthetic.

Most of us know the story: a terrible quake took two minutes to more or less level the young city of Napier in 1931. What the quake left, a devastating fire destroyed immediately after.

A shattered but determined populace came together to rebuild something that stands to this day as a testament to human resilience and a desire for beauty even among ashes and heartbreak.

It's quite stupendous. Six thousand, five hundred workers. Two years. One hundred and sixty buildings. And Napier rose again. It is a product of a time when concrete was the new wonder material and automation and reproducibility were catchwords. Art deco is geometric, easy to reproduce, simple and, in a world before widespread insurance, cheap.

The pyramids of Egypt were just beginning to give up their treasures and as gold and lapis lazuli by the truckload were revealed to a world agog, the Egyptian ziggurat motif became a part of the built landscape in far-off Napier. We see them everywhere. And sunbursts, perhaps reflecting a new optimism in a post-World War I era. Some designers added their own signature: Louis Hay liked a vertical line above the windows, which made many of his buildings look like they had eyebrows. Hay was the architect on many of the renowned structures, including the National Tobacco Building, an exuberant mix of deco and art nouveau, according to the wishes of the owner Gerhard Husheer. And it's not only the shopping precinct that's littered with art deco: plenty of houses still survive too.

It wasn't until the 1980s that Napier began to realise that tourist dollars could be drawn in by these decorative facades and now the city celebrates its past with an annual art deco festival: this year's summer festival was held in late February and the next Winter Deco Weekend is July 15-17. That the entire region embraces the fun is evident by the fact that just about everyone I met in Napier talks about the period suits they have bought for the festival and of wardrobes of authentic flapper dresses and clothes. It's a chance to really understand these pleasing buildings - and to travel the streets in an original Packard.

Checklist

GETTING THERE
One-way Jetstar fares from Auckland to Napier start from $49. jetstar.co.nz

ONLINE
artdeconapier.com

- NZ Herald

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