Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 22, 2021
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Deco decadence

Perfectly preserved, Napier, New Zealand is a snapshot of the Roaring '20s

On a bright sunny day, walking down a street full of Art Deco buildings in Napier is rather like being in a time warp. Many cities around the world treasure their buildings from this era, but only one city -- Napier, New Zealand -- can claim the title of "Art Deco capital of the world."

My wife and I had driven down from Auckland to Wellington on our way to catch the ferry to New Zealand's South Island. We had chosen to travel the east coast route, specifically to see Napier. We were also planning to visit the stunning gannet colony on Cape Kidnappers and a couple of the wineries in the nearby Hawke's Bay area.

On the way to Napier, we passed through small towns and stayed at friendly B&Bs that, when we checked in, always gave us a small bottle of milk for our morning coffee. My wife and I often remarked to each other that it felt more like the 1960s than the early 21st century. But when we arrived in Napier, we fell into the middle of a full-blown time warp.

Taken for granted for decades, Napier's architecture sparked little local interest until the 1980s, when visitors started arriving to photograph the town's buildings. Bemused inhabitants realized that they had something special. Today, thanks to the persuasive voice of Napier's Art Deco Trust, the long neglected 1930s facades have been brought back to life.

Destructive Style
The Art Deco style of architecture grew out of the Paris Exposition of 1925. The style was modern and streamlined, just like the era it was born in -- the Jazz Age. It was a time of dizzying skyscrapers, new technology, flappers, short skirts and shocking dances. Art Deco reached its peak at the World's Fairs of the 1930s and ended with the outbreak of World War II.

But Napier's claim to Art Deco supremacy has a tragic prelude. On February 3, 1931, a massive earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale shook the Hawke's Bay district of New Zealand's North Island. In less than three minutes most of the Victorian seaside town of Napier lay in ruins and 258 people were dead. It remains the worst natural disaster in New Zealand's history.

Many felt the town should be abandoned. Instead, an astonishing rebirth occurred: within two years one of the most modern towns in the world rose from the ruins. It was built in the main style of the time: a scattering of Spanish Mission and Stripped Classical but, most of all, Art Deco.

In Art We Trust
With the huge amount of building to be undertaken after the earthquake, the town's architects agreed to work together -- partly to prevent architects and builders outside the district from coming in and stealing all the work. But deciding what the new Napier should look like was not so easy. The California city of Santa Barbara had recently been rebuilt in Spanish Mission style after a 1925 earthquake. Two weeks after the disaster in Napier, the local newspaper was proposing that the same style be adopted. But the Depression had hit New Zealand, and financing for such a rich style simply wasn't available.

Other design ideas from the US began to take hold. Out-of-work architecture graduates from Auckland University arrived in Napier full of new ideas gleaned from American magazines. Working with the town's architects, they helped to create a Napier that would be modern in the American way.

In the inevitable mix of styles that resulted, Art Deco buildings predominated for largely practical reasons. The clean, geometric lines of Art Deco, with its zig-zags, chevrons, sunbursts and abstract plant motifs, grew out of a reaction to the elaborate ornamentation of the turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau movement.

The less extravagant style also fitted leaner times, and Art Deco was further stripped down, with decorative elements limited to bas-relief patterns. But even though money was tight, no one thought of building without some kind of decorative element, no matter how basic.

Finally, in January 1933, during a week-long carnival, the new Napier was proudly shown to the world, and the Depression was briefly forgotten. In the intervening years some buildings have inevitably been altered or replaced. But in 1986, the Art Deco Trust was formed to promote appreciation and preservation of Napier's unique heritage.

Since then, the Trust has become a vital force in Napier, seeking to persuade property owners that it makes better business sense to refurbish Art Deco buildings than tear them down. And when it's successful, the Trust also advises on appropriate colours for repainting.

A Walk to Remember
We arrived in Napier late on a spring afternoon and checked into a delightful small hotel. Mon Logis (French for "my abode") is owned by a French expat and is modelled on a small country hotel. Built as a terrace house in 1860, it became a private hotel in 1916 and was one of the few buildings to survive the earthquake.

The next morning, we enjoyed a gourmet breakfast on the balcony of our room overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Since there are only four rooms in the place, we got to chat with our fellow guests, including Syd and Gwyn, an expat South African couple who invited us to dinner in their home when we arrived in Wellington a few days later.

From Mon Logis, it was a short walk into town where we met our guide, Doreen Smith, a Trust volunteer. As we walked, Doreen explained that Art Deco was not only more economical than other styles but also safer. During the earthquake, people were injured by large decorative pieces shaking loose off Victorian buildings. Concrete Art Deco buildings have only surface embellishments.

Riveting Design
Doreen pointed out the Market Reserve Building, the first to be completed after the earthquake. "Most new buildings were designed to be welded," said Doreen, "but the architect of this one specified that it be riveted so that the people of Napier would hear, as well as, see that a new city was rising from the ruins." As a gesture of support, the English manufacturer of the building's bronze windows supplied them for the same price as steel.

On Tennyson, Emerson and Hastings Streets, continuous overhanging verandas visually cut buildings in half. Above the verandas, original delicate Art Deco designs are sensitively painted, while below are varieties of "modernized" storefronts. These verandas are typical of shopping streets across Australia and New Zealand and provide shade for both shoppers and window displays: the "fade factor" is especially high in Napier.

The verandas might be protective, but they don't do much to enhance a building's appearance, particularly when covered with gaudy signage. Not surprisingly, the most striking buildings don't have verandas. Among these are the Daily Telegraph offices, the ASB Bank and the Masonic Hotel.

Maori Modern
The Daily Telegraph building has a central bay with a balcony above the entrance. Decorated with zig-zags and stylized leaf forms, the original, one-storey building was lit from above by skylights. Some of the impact of the building has been lost with the addition of a mezzanine floor, but the exterior has been beautifully restored.

The ASB Bank is one of the best restorations in Napier. Painted in grey and white, the building blends Art Deco style with Maori motifs. The panels around the interior skylights in the banking hall are painted in a traditional Maori "kowhaiwhai" pattern.

The Australian Mutual Provident building, designed by local architect Louis Hay, was altered several times before being acquired by a law firm. The new owners set about restoring it to its original form. As they worked on the building, they were amazed when original doors, and other items removed over the years, were mysteriously returned by local residents.

Fine Lines
The finest Art Deco building in Napier is in the port district of Ahuriri. Now known as the Rothmans building, it is Louis Hay's masterpiece. Built for the owner of the National Tobacco Company, Hay's first sketches for the building were rejected for not being sumptuous enough. Hay's design is a highly effective mix of styles combining Art Deco, Art Nouveau and the sturdy, late 19th-century style of the Chicago School.

Previously painted in two alarming shades of blue, the Rothmans building has been restored to its original cream colour. The sun glints on the polished brass handrails and decorative lamps flanking the arched entrance. On either side of the entrance door, a hand-sculpted stucco design of roses and bulrushes has been highlighted, and areas of green tile, previously hidden under layers of paint, have once more been revealed.

The pleasure of Napier is found in slowly walking its streets with your gaze turned upwards. Sometimes your eye will be caught by the elegant lettering on a building or the figures marking the year of construction. At other times you may be drawn to a frieze below a roofline or the detailing around a window.

Above all, it's the delight of seeing the coordinated pastel shades and accent colours used to bring out the character of the buildings and their decorative elements. There's something about Art Deco that so perfectly suits places with lots of sun like South Florida, California and Napier. Perhaps it's the strong light and hard shadows that bring out the accents on the buildings.

The collective value of Napier's Art Deco buildings is far greater than the sum of its parts. That's why the loss of a single building weakens the city in a way that can never be repaired. Fortunately, the number of Art Deco buildings that have been destroyed is relatively few, and the Trust now has advance warning when buildings are threatened.

With a little luck, visitors will be able to enter their own time warp and admire the architecture of one of New Zealand's most unusual cities for years to come.


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