New Zealand's Art Deco City

Dallas Morning News

It’s a near-cloudless afternoon and I’ve spent the past hour weaving dreamily around dozens of sun-dappled, immaculately preserved 1930s buildings. Art deco was all the rage when these storefronts were erected and the streets are a feast of streamlined edges, zigzag patterns and palm-fringed pastel facades.

 

You’d be forgiven for thinking I’m in South Beach, Miami regarded by many as the world’s best-preserved deco community. In fact, I’m 8,000 miles away in the New Zealand seafront city of Napier – and it has an even more intriguing story than its northern hemisphere sister.

 

On February 3, 1931, the North Island settlement of 15,000 was reduced to smouldering rubble by a massive earthquake and subsequent fire. But while almost every building – plus at least 157 lives – were lost, a massive reconstruction was soon underway.

 

Within two years, Napier – which also increased in size when the quake pushed a large swathe of “new” land up from adjoining Hawke’s Bay – was back on its feet. And, reflecting the fashions of the day, it was suddenly at the cutting edge of architecture.

 

Deco dominated the city’s new look but Spanish Mission, Stripped Classical and other hot trends were also featured. Now, more than 80 years later, the Pacific-fringed community is a living museum of arguably the 20th-century’s most attractive design ideals.

 

“Nobody was building town centers during the Depression, so Napier is rare,” says Robert McGregor, my tour guide and author of several books on the city. “South Beach and Napier are certainly the best deco environments in the world – but ours is much better,” he adds with a smile.

 

A founding member of the city’s heritage-preserving Art Deco Trust – its highlight event is February’s annual Art Deco Weekend, when thousands roll-in to celebrate 1930s style – McGregor is one of several expert guides offering fascinating weaves around Napier’s architectural treasures.

 

On our walk, I learn to look out for the sunbursts, speed lines, geometric leaded windows and Nautical Moderne flourishes that line the downtown core. But while there are streets of beautifully preserved buildings here, some landmarks stand out as camera-hogging superstars.

 

The immaculate Masonic Hotel’s sculpted entrance parapet looks like a classic car hood ornament, its stained glass canopy lettering reminding me of retro sci-fi movies. There’s also the ASB Bank building with its curlicue Maori motifs – one of only four New Zealand buildings, says McGregor, that fuse deco and Maori designs.

 

Then we peak behind the facades. The Daily Telegraph building – described in one of McGregor’s books as “perhaps Napier’s most ebulliently deco structure” – has a handsome exterior accented by zigzags, sunbursts and lotus flowers. But inside it’s even more exciting.

 

Restored to period glory in 2003, its geometric-floored atrium is flanked by two storeys of wood paneling and topped by a patterned plasterwork ceiling studded with graceful pendant lamps. It’s like stepping onto a 1930s office-themed movie set – I fully expect to hear typewriters snapping away while pencil-skirted secretaries bustle by.

 

Next day, I dive deeper into the scene. Graham Holley has been running popular driving tours around Napier’s outskirts for years. Dressed in vest, Panama hat and spiffy black and white shoes, his outfit is not the only thing that echoes the 1930s – his touring vehicle is a 1939 royal blue Packard Six.

 

Built in Detroit, its chrome-accented interior has a backseat like a well-sprung sofa – the perfect way to sink into the period. Handing me some dramatic photos of pre and post quake Napier as we trundle along the seafront, he offers enlightening insights on the city’s rebuild.

 

“Four architecture companies and 6,500 workers were kept busy putting up 160 new buildings,” he tells me, pointing out an avenue of ocean-facing Norfolk Pine trees that – according to an eyewitness – “whipped around like cat’s tails” during the earthquake.

 

Pulling into a parking lot, we nip inside the large Municipal Theatre. While many important buildings were swiftly rebuilt, it wasn’t until 1937 that Napier regained its main stage. Reflecting changing tastes, its features run from cubist-patterned carpeting and colored neon lamps in the foyer to an auditorium with risqué wall panels of leaping nudes.

 

Humanizing the story of Napier’s rebuild as we hop back in the Packard, Holley also draws attention to key architect Louis Hay. A fan of Frank Lloyd Wright – his own still-standing office building echoes Wright’s angular brickwork – Hay created some of the city’s finest landmarks, including one fusing deco and art nouveau approaches.

 

Arguably his finest Napier work, the lovely, 1933-built National Tobacco Company Building was commissioned by cigarette baron Gerhard Husheer. Deeming his original plans insufficiently ornate, Holley says Husheer sent Hay back to the drawing board to create a much grander structure.

 

Behind its sunburst-carved double doors – encircled by a rose-patterned round entranceway – the ostentatious interior is an achingly beautiful mélange of marble, polished wood and a stained-glass dome ceiling. “It was built for a businessman who wanted everyone to know how rich he was,” says Holley.

 

Later, pootling back to the city centre – via some lovely little deco residences with pastel exteriors and streamlined corners – I start to make plans for my final evening in the area. Napier gets all the attention, but it wasn’t the only city affected by the quake. And it wasn’t the only one rebuilt with a deco flair.

 

A 20-minute drive away, Hastings – which lost at least 101 people in the earthquake – was also refashioned during the 1930s. And while its city center is not as well-maintained as Napier’s, its period flourishes include a cool deco clock tower. But the main reason for my visit is the new Hastings City Night Market.  

 

Launched in November, the weekly event aims to lure locals and visitors to the region’s other main community. I spend a couple of hours squeezing between the friendly crowds here, perusing the crafty trinkets and licking my lips at a barbecued lamb shank stand and a stall selling fresh-baked “homemade Twinkies.”

 

But my only purchase is from Streamline Espresso, operating in the shadow of the zigzag-patterned clock tower. Staffed by a smiling local, it’s housed in a shiny and immaculately preserved Airstream trailer. I’m a sucker for great design and I swear it makes the coffee taste better.

 

If you go:

 

Activities: Guided walking tours cost NZ$17 to NZ$20, while 2014’s Art Deco Weekend runs February 19 to 23. For information on both, see www.artdeconapier.com.

 

Vintage car tours cost NZ$150 for up to four people. Information: www.packardpromenades.co.nz.

 

Hastings City Night Market runs Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

 

Sleep: The Dome is an apartment-style sleepover in a refurbished deco building (www.thedome.co.nz); the Masonic Hotel offers immaculate heritage rooms in the city center (www.masonic.co.nz).

 

Eat & drink: Gourmet comfort dishes abound at stylish Mister D (www.misterd.co.nz); cocktails are the way to go at the Masonic Hotel’s chatty Emporium bar (www.masonic.co.nz/emporium).

 

Details: For Napier visitor information, see www.napier.nz.com. Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.ca) flies direct from Vancouver to Auckland, a short hop from Napier.

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