As Napier prospered in the 1870s, a substantial postal and telegraph office in Browning St (now corner of Cathedral Lane and Hastings St) was opened in 1876 at a cost of £4000 (2019: $724,000) which used 2500 feet (762m) of kauri timber from Mercury Bay in its construction.
It had by 1929 become beyond repair and too small, so the Postal and Telegraph Department decided to build a new building on the corner of Dickens and Hastings streets.
The department owned the corner section on Dickens and Hastings streets, where it had a savings bank. It purchased an adjoining section to build a three-storey brick building on both the sections, where they hoped would house postal and telegraph staff for the next 50 years.
On May 10, 1929, the foundation stone for the post office was laid by prime minister Sir Joseph Ward. The contract price was £52,745 (2019: $5.2 million)
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In 1901, while in charge of the Postal and Telegraph Department, Ward created the world's first universal penny postage, which meant for this price you could post a letter to almost any country in the world and throughout New Zealand. This halved the cost of posting in New Zealand alone, and volumes went up by 13 million letters after the year of its introduction. This allayed fear of losses because of the reduced rates.
Ward was extremely innovative and embraced new technologies, such as advocating the all red cable service, which was a system of electrical telegraphs which linked the British Empire in October 1902. It was called the red line because of the practice of colouring the territory of the British Empire in red or pink on political maps.
The new Napier Postal and Telegraph Office was opened by J B Donald, the Post-Master General, on July 28, 1930. This building would also contain the post office's savings bank.
For the occasion, it was announced that the first three depositors in the Napier Post Office Savings Bank were still alive and living in Napier.
The third person to open an account, Mr W Slater, had sought to withdraw all his money a few years after opening his account. He was convinced to leave – as was the common practice – a few shillings ($20) in the account to avoid the hassle of opening another account if he wished to again become a depositor.
Slater forget about the book, but upon the opening of the post office building, he was approached to ask if he still possessed the book. He searched through his papers and found his old passbook, bearing the date 1870.
To his pleasure, Slater found his balance was now £16 ($1600) and was issued with a new passbook.
The new post office building was in the modern renaissance style and constructed with a steel frame and concrete (ferro concrete) and was said to be of fire resisting construction.
The street frontage was faced with Coromandel granite, and in Oamaru stone. In between the pilasters on the second and third storeys were large bronze and steel windows, with bronzed panels between.
New Zealand marble was used in the interior first floor vestibule entrance walls and floor and second floor vestibule areas, with the remainder finished in rimu and plaster.
An innovation in the building was glass post office boxes, which showed if there was mail in the box to save opening it.
While at the opening at Napier for the post office, post-master general Mr J B Donald used the occasion to make a ground-breaking announcement ‒ it would soon be possible to make telephone calls to Australia (except Northern, Western Australia and Tasmania) from New Zealand. On November 25, 1930, the service was open to the public, at a cost of 1 ($102) per minute, but with a three-minute minimum charge of £3 ($306).
During the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake, the Napier Post Office's clock was stopped at the time of the quake at 10.47am. Despite the claim of the building being fire resistant, it was completely burnt out.
Many fires were started in buildings by embers finding their way into building paper underneath the roof structures.
A 50-year-old telegraph operator, Mr McArthur, was said to have died from shock in the building.
Mr J B McDonald, who had opened the building lass that 12 months before the earthquake, announced in June 1931 it was intended to restore the Napier Post Office to its former state by the Public Works Department, which he thought would take 12 months.
Restoration proceeded in August 1931 at an estimated cost of £30,000 ($3.4 million) to repair it to its pre-earthquake state.
The wall facing down Dickens St had to be almost completely removed on the lower storey because of a large crack.
Tests were done on the structural integrity of the building and showed, apart from that crack in the wall, the building was still plumb, and the structural frame had not been damaged to any great extent. All the internal plaster inside the building was removed to check and foundations, walls and ceilings – which were found to be in good order.
The opening of the Napier Post Office took place in August 1932.
New Post-Master General, Adam Hamilton, said: "In New Zealand, people, if they meet with disaster, have a wonderful faculty of putting things back together again. That is because we have a people of initiative and enterprise."
The renovations had cost £22,000 ($2.6m).
As stated previously, it was hoped the building would be used as a post office for 50 years. It was used a lot longer than that before closing. And it would have been incomprehensible in 1930 to think its demise wouldn't be to a bigger post office being required, but rather technological advances effectively making its physical services and staff numbers almost completely redundant.
• Michael Fowler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contract researcher and writer of Hawke's Bay's history.