Mayor Bill Dalton has revealed a proposal being explored by the Napier City Council to build a new "Memorial Library" in Clive Square.
In order for this plan to be brought to fruition, Mr Dalton says it would be necessary to demolish the former Mothers' Rest building (Community Centre). Mr Dalton also suggests that a new library on that site could house the Eternal Flame and plaques listing those who gave their lives in World War II, that have been removed from the renovated and extended Napier Conference Centre on the Marine Parade.
These proposals overlook the fact that the former Mothers' Rest building has an important history of its own and, for this reason, is listed on the Council's District Plan as a heritage building. Not only was it built in 1925 as a memorial to the citizens of Napier who gave their lives in the First World War, it is also a landmark building as part of women's social history in New Zealand.
By the early 20th century local councils had long provided public toilets for men, but similar public facilities for women were provided only after vigorous campaigning by the Women's Christian Temperance Union.
These buildings were called "rest rooms" not to be euphemistic or coy about the fact they housed public toilets, but because, unlike men's public toilets, they were designed to be pleasant and relaxing places for mothers to sit down with their babies and young children, while baby was fed and changed. For young women employed in offices and shops the rooms also provided a place to freshen up and change their clothes after the day's work, if they had an evening engagement in town.
Rest rooms of this type had paid staff whose job it was not only to keep the rooms tidy and hygienic, but also to add extra homely touches such as a vase of flowers. Napier's mothers' rest was a trailblazer - it not only fulfilled these roles, it was also designed to accommodate a room for the local Plunket nurse.
Last, and certainly not least, the mothers' rest building was designed by the renowned Napier architect, Louis Hay in his signature domestic Prairie style, making it an attractive and significant part of Napier's Art Deco era architectural heritage.
The mothers' rest has been standing empty for several years now. Demolition has been proposed on the grounds that seismic strengthening of the building could cost as much as $2 million.
For a modestly sized single-storey building, such a figure is very hard to believe when compared with the findings of an Auckland University structural study of Art Deco buildings in the Napier and Hastings CBD that was commissioned by the Art Deco Trust in 2015.
The research team reported that the structure of concrete walls in the buildings they tested was very sound and, furthermore, that any weakness in the brick infill could be remedied at very moderate cost using a new technique developed for these buildings.
The genesis of the proposal to do away with the Mothers' Rest building lies in the perceived need for a 100-room hotel in the CBD.
The chain of proposed changes would involve selling the Council building to provide a site for the hotel - repurposing the current library to accommodate the Council Chamber, committee rooms, and mayoral and executive office suites - demolishing the Mothers' Rest and then building a new library with the stated intention of designating it as an all-purpose "Memorial."
In the process the two buildings constructed as Napier's war memorials would be lost - the Mothers' Rest through demolition, and the War Memorial Hall through the removal of the memorial components of the building.
Is the gaining of a new 100-bed hotel worth the loss of two very significant features of Napier's community history?
Denis Pilkington is editor of the Historic Places Hawke's Bay newsletter.