Monday, 12 March 2012


The Soundshell

We had been looking forward to seeing the Art Deco delights of Napier and bought a copy of the Art Deco Walk from the tourist office on the seafront. Rather than repeat the guide, I will just describe what we thought were the highlights.

Napier had an earthquake in 1931 which destroyed the central business district. It was rapidly rebuilt in a reasonably consistent Art Deco style, although with elements of Spanish Mission (inspired by Santa Barbara in California, rebuilt after an earthquake of 1925) as well.

The walk guide conveniently describes the walk in east-to-west and west-to-east sections. We opted for an eastern start which allowed us to start at the Soundshell on the seafront (note the classic Art Decon zigzag pattern in the foreground). This not terribly photogenic structure was intended to house open-air concerts. In the 1940s and 50s it was used as a skating rink.

You now head down Emerson St, opposite, past the T&G building (on the left below) and the ASB bank. The bank (originally the Bank of New Zealand) has wonderful carved decorations using Maori motifs. They seem very willing for you to wander in to see the interior and even have an informative leaflet about it.

We looked left down Hastings Street, currently undergoing some redevelopment and rather tatty. WE returned to Emerson St and walked past the large Spanish Mission style Criterion Hotel. This handsome building seems to have come down in the world as it is now a backpackers hotel.

At the end of this section of the street is the Kidson's Korner building, with its pleasing pale blue and yellow colour scheme and zigzag pattern decoration. It is oddly angled to fit in between buildings on both sides which survived the earthquake.

On the diagonally opposite corner is the striking Hotel Central with Egyptian-style columns with lotus leaves and stylised falcons.

Also inEmerson St, we especially liked the Fenwick Building with its pilaster capitals, which one book I read described as being reminiscent of car radiators. I thought they were stylised palm trees.

At the end of Emerson St you emerge into Clive Square, where the former Fire Station now houses the Art Deco Trust. Ironically, it pre-dates the majority of Napier's Art Deco buildings, having been originally constructed in 1921. The original brick facade was replaced by a duplicate in concrete after earthquake damage and later the huge fire-engine doors were glazed.

We now turned down Tennyson St to reach the Municipal Theatre. Internally, this apparently has elements of the Streamline Moderne style of Art Deco: curving forms, long horizontal lines, and sometimes nautical elements.

Further along you pass the Classical Revival Public Trust Building. It is a rather massive, block-like building and its solidity enabled it to survive the earthquake. A contemporary photo shows it surrounded by rubble. Further along is the wonderful (New Zealand) Daily Telegraph building. The walk guide describes it, rightly, as Napier's most flamboyant Art Deco building with almost all the classic elements of Art Deco on display.

A left into Hastings St brought us to the AMP building, now a wine store (we also brought something for an aperitif later). The guide notes a debt to Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

As we made our way back to the Marine Parade, we could not fail to notice how the Masonic Hotel with its dramatic parapet ornaments, provides the image on the cover of the Art Deco Walk guide.


I confess that I had imagined walking round Napier on a sunny day and photographing its lovely buildings against a blue sky. We were also looking for somewhere nice for lunch as we wandered around and were deeply disappointed by the apparent total lack of restaurants. So those factors contributed to a slight feeling of disappointment.

Perhaps more objectively, we felt that Napier's streets were rather cluttered: hanging banners, lights, palms, bollards, cars. It is wonderful that in the 1980s the Art Deco Trust was founded to promote the retention, renovation and promotion of Napier's architectural heritage. They have done a great job in that 140 of the 164 buildings constructed between 1920 and 1940 are still standing. To our minds, the next challenge is to make the buildings easier to really see and appreciate by pedestrianising the key streets and de-cluttering them.

Conditions: Cloudy, cool.

Distance: only a couple of miles.

Rating: four and a half stars.


Rather by chance we were staying in the suburb of Ahuriri and we were thrilled to find one of Napier's finest Art Deco buildings just a few hundred yards away: the National Tobacco Company's headquarters. The extraordinary flower decorations seem to hark back to Art Nouveau.

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