Napier's Marine Pde had its beginnings in 1889 when Norfolk Island pines were planted and a promenade built – complete with bench seating to take in the "sweep of the bay" (view of the Pacific Ocean from Mahia to Cape Kidnappers).

In front of the promenade was a seawall to protect nearby buildings from the ferocity of the sea during storms – which could wash into nearby Hastings St.

A paddling pool, swimming baths and a playground had been built on the foreshore at the port end of Marine Pde, but the 1931 Hawke's Bay Earthquake would gift Napier hundreds more hectares on the Parade.

With such a large area now available, plans were made to utilise the land.

In many locations around New Zealand bandstands were a prominent sight. Napier had two, one on Marine Pde and the other at Civic Square. The Marine Pde's was wrecked during the 1931 earthquake.


Brass bands were a popular entertainment activity, but there was a necessity to be reasonably close to the open-aired rotunda to hear the music.

A solution was a structure that projected sound by its design. Arguably New Zealand's most successful beautification society, Napier's Thirty Thousand Club had raised funds during 1933/34 of £800 (2017: $95,000) for a Marine Pde open air rotunda called a "soundshell".

However, many (including most of Napier's architects) were against structures on the parade that would block the "sweep of the bay".

In 1933 The Thirty Thousand Club had revealed plans to build an entertainment centre building on the Marine Pde near the CBD.

This received unanimous criticism from all Napier architects, with Louis Hay saying: "The sweep of the beach round the bay in Napier has been compared with Naples and other noted seafronts, and it seems a great pity that the beauty of that vista from the central or most used part of the Parade might be marred by any large obstruction."

So, it's likely the 1934-proposed soundshell came out of this original project, and Napier architect John Watson (?-1960) would design it.

When the foundations of the soundshell were laid in November 1934, a report in The Daily Telegraph indicated many were unhappy it was going ahead.

Napier mayor C O Morse said it would be removed to another site if it proved unpopular and blocked views.


It was built relatively quickly and opened in January 1935. Some Napierites were still against the project, saying guests at the newly rebuilt Marine Parade Masonic Hotel "objected" to it.

The hotel's manager, Mr R Chesney, said that was not true as "the reverse is actually the case. I consider the soundshell is a distinct acquisition and many of the tourists who have passed through here have said to me they have seen nothing quite like it in any part of the world."

Not only did many tourists like the music which could be heard coming from the soundshell, but other towns also took note of the novel outdoor stage.

It appears it was the first "music shell" erected on a foreshore anywhere.

Architect John Watson explained in a letter to the Tauranga Borough Council (which was considering its own shell along The Strand) that louvres inside were on "specially designed angles for the distribution of sound along the beach".

The designs of the soundshell were patented under the name of The Thirty Thousand Club. Tauranga decided against building one due to the cost.

The only threat to the soundshell, which has become an iconic symbol of Napier, was in the 1960s.

A story was told to me that a past mayor wanted it demolished, but after visiting Rome and seeing the ancient architectural worth of amphitheatres there, sent a message back to Napier that the soundshell should remain.

Over the years it has been used for concerts, speeches, drama, protests, a beauty contest and as the centre of many activities during the annual February Art Deco Festival. And, of course, at tomorrow night's New Year festivities.

• Michael Fowler is taking a walking and bus tour, and other rail and walking tours of Hastings Art Deco, during the Tremains 2018 Art Deco Festival. Bookings at iTicket. He is also speaking at 10am, Friday, February 16, at the Century Theatre, MTG, on the topic "Post 1931 Marine Parade: The beginning of Napier's Playground". Entry by gold coin donation.

• Michael Fowler ( is an EIT accounting lecturer, and in his spare time a recorder of Hawke's Bay's history.