Laurie Rhodes looks back on the history of memorials in Napier and asks "what happened to the Centennial Memorial concept?"

Nearly 80 years ago, just prior to World War II, New Zealand's attention was focused on the approaching centenary celebrations to mark the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. 1940 was going to be a significant year, and to assist, the government created a subsidy for community projects designed to commemorate that Treaty anniversary. The country enthusiastically embraced the idea.

In Hastings, the major project was the establishment of a Māori Centre of Arts and Crafts at Waipatu Pa, along with the publication of bilingual centennial booklets. Clive, Taradale and Greenmeadows were to commemorate the centennial with tree planting projects, and the name 'Centennial Avenue' was proposed for placement under street signs on Avondale Rd to identify the street as a memorial.

Napier wrestled with four significant centennial memorial ideas through the early months of 1939. A Memorial Ave linking Kennedy Rd to Taradale was one idea. An aquarium featuring New Zealand fish on the Marine Parade was another, as was the creation of a new centennial wing to the Hawke's Bay Art Gallery.

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The fourth proposal was for a Winter Gardens on the Marine Parade that could showcase New Zealand's flora and palms particularly, in a glass enclosed space suitable for community events: all encouraging visitors to the area.

In June 1939, with the support of Napier's well-respected 30,000 Club, Napier's Centennial Memorial Committee unanimously agreed to support the Winter Garden proposal.

The memorial would be called the "Palm Lounge and Winter Gardens" and was to be constructed next to the Municipal Baths with interior floor space for receptions, dances, concerts and socials. The basement area was to contain a kitchen and provide an "open buffet" for the public.

Plants within the Palm Lounge were be grown in tubs on wheels and, with suspended baskets of flowers and greenery, would allow for movement and rearrangement to support the varied events the building could host.

The start of World War II and conflicting ideals made planning difficult for Napier's
The start of World War II and conflicting ideals made planning difficult for Napier's "forgotten memorial". Photo / Supplied

Fundraising for Napier's Centennial Memorial began in August 1939, just weeks before the start of World War II. By the end of September, fundraising events were postponed due to our involvement in the conflict.

A condition of the Government's Centennial Memorial subsidy was that projects had to be completed by the end of the centennial year, 1940.

But 1940 became wartime. Projects that hadn't been completed by that time were stopped and collected funds would only be made available for other "charitable and public purposes" as agreed to by the Minister of Internal Affairs.

So, immediately after the war, Napier's mayor and council tried to gain support for restarting the project as something new; this time a combined Centennial and War Memorial.

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The post-war government declared that the only war memorials it would support with funds were strictly 'Community Centres' that expressed the democratic ideals of community participation that war had been fought and sacrificed for, and nothing else.

This position was to initially bring the advocates of the Winter Garden into conflict with government, as an Internal Affairs review of the proposal determined that the primary community purpose of the memorial had been sacrificed to the "idea of erecting a show place on the Parade".

Napier's mayor pleaded with the Minister of Internal Affairs to allow the Winter Garden memorial proposal to proceed maintaining that "faith must be kept with those donors who gave their money to the 'Centennial Memorial Winter Garden' but the government resisted.

Seven years after WWII, local architect Guy Natusch was given a brief to create a new War Memorial design. Photo / File
Seven years after WWII, local architect Guy Natusch was given a brief to create a new War Memorial design. Photo / File

It wasn't until 1952, seven years after the war, that a young local architect, Guy Natusch, was given a brief to create a new War Memorial design for the site that could meet government 'community centre' requirements and gain subsidy, while incorporating into it the "Palm Lounge" inspiration of the 1939 Winter Garden Centennial design for which funds had been raised.

His design proposed to fill parts of the building with relocatable palm trees on wheels as was proposed for the unbuilt Winter Garden.

In 1953, armed with the new design, the Napier City Council applied to the Minister of Internal Affairs to dedicate the funds it had collected for Palm Lounge and Winter Gardens to a "Combined Centennial and War Memorial building". Permission was now granted for the new combined memorial to access centennial funds.

Napier had a new council and new mayor when the city War Memorial was completed in 1957, and although the released 'Centennial Winter Garden' funds accounted for 10 per cent of the War Memorial construction costs, the commitment for the remembering the nation's first 100 years was largely forgotten.

One of the other 1939 Centennial Memorial contenders did, however, benefit from the combined memorial building.

The Napier City Council gave permission for the basement of the new building to be used to house a volunteer run aquarium, which eventually led to the National Aquarium of New Zealand on Napier's seafront today.