Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Spirit of Napier

'survivor' Sheila Williams story
Emerson Street, Napier

There's talk around the dinner table that this winter may see us back in Australia and New Zealand. Be still my heart. It's got me thinking, however, of places I would love to revisit. Here's one I'd love to see again, on a bright sunny day.

New Zealand captured our hearts it's true, but its bucolic countryside possesses a dangerous beauty with which to flirt - its bad seismic reputation.

In Kakanui, near Dunedin, South Island, our hostess included the local tsunami protocol in her standard welcome patter at our Airbnb accommodations. At Aukland's Museum we survived a terrifying volcanic eruption simulation.  In Christchurch we wandered still broken streets and absorbed the can-do attitude of residents on the anniversary to the day of their disastrous February 22, 2011 earthquake.

Veronica Sunbay 1934 (replica 1980s)
And then there's Napier. Well, everyone knows about Napier. Napier has created a reputation for itself with its Art Deco architecture, featuring a very popular annual Art Deco Festival sponsored by the highly successful Art Deco Trust. A luscious sea-side location with palms and Norfolk pines and streets lined with low profile, sherbet-coloured buildings. Lots to love.

And I was happiest along Marine Parade (gardens and Hawke Bay beyond) and Emerson Street, a palm-lined pedestrian street with loads of, well, you know...Let me show you some of my favourites, with a bit of info gleaned from my tour guide.

The Masonic Hotel 1932
The Daily Telegraph building 1932
If you want to come along on the walk, Streetview's capture of Marine Parade  as good a place as any to begin. The statue Spirit of Napier is a bit further south. It is she who "represents Napier rising from the ashes of the 1931 earthquake" and the prosperity which accompanied its rebirth. (Rotary Club of Ahuriri)

Napier's beauty comes about (lest we forget) due to a terrible tragedy, the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake, a 7.9 seismic event which levelled most of the centre of Napier and nearby Hastings, killing 261 people in the area and injuring thousands. A powerful video from 1965 is worth a watch. Fires raged for days, destroying what was left. You might expect the survivors to have succumbed to the horror of the event. But optimistic rebuilding took place over the next two years, and most builders opted for the the prevalent style of the day, the Jazz age idiom we call Art Deco.

Masonic Hotel

The profusion of Deco delights, plus many earthquake survivors built in the years just before the earthquake in the 1920s (interestingly, most c19 masonry buildings collapsed readily in the catastrophe) which display the influences of Art Nouveau, Chicago and Prairie School, Spanish Mission, Beaux Arts, Stripped Classical, International Style, and Maori design elements, and its wealth of Deco structures, make Napier an old-house nut's happy place.

This album, then, is about the Art Deco buildings of Napier. The Art Deco City by Robert McGregor explains the reasons the city was rebuilt in this style. Art Deco was fashionable (its clean modern lines expressed the ethos of the time, its changes in social behaviour, women's rights and technology,) it was safe (reinforced concrete minus the decorative adornments that had killed so many in the collapse of the city's c19 structures) and it was cheap (the Depression is not a great time for rebuilding one's city.)
Victoria Sunbay (originally built 1934)

I'll use McGregor's words to summarize the design elements at play: "geometric, usually angular patterns and shapes such as zigzags and zuggurats, symbols of power and speed such a lightnig flashes, and symbols of freedom and the dawn of a new age - leaping deer and greyhounds, prancing women, fountains and...the rising sun."

 An interest in Egyptian, Mayan and Aztec designs, and a unique local use of Maori motifs provided design inspiration. The love affair with speed and transportation imagery is frequently found in Deco style.

I've gone on about Deco long enough. I'll hand it off to the experts. Here are posts about Vancouver's Marine Building and others. And then there's Tim Morawetz, who's written two brilliant books about Art Deco architecture, in Toronto, and across Canada.

The Hawke's Bay Chambers 1932

Near the top of this post, I showed the Masonic Hotel. It was designed by architects Prouse and Wilson in 1932, and was considered  to be the town's "most modern looking building" (McGregor) when it was built. The loggia (think, rain shelter) built out over the street was unique in NZ.

Smith & Chambers Building 1932

The first photo captures the parapet decoration, reminiscent of the hood ornament on a showy limo. This kind of embellishment was kept at a minimum during the rebuilding. Tragically, many were killed or injured during the quake, as Victorian roof elements tumbled into the street.

This one is permitted as it is integral to the structure of the hotel. The canopy over the front door incorporates glass panels with the iconic Deco lettering.

The second view of the Masonic Hotel captures more of the deco elements - the horizontal profile, the speed stripes, the smooth white finish, the flat roof, no eaves. This article shows additional images.

Kidson's Building 1932

But enough about architecture. Let's talk about me. I had longed to see Napier for years, but my enthusiasm for the visit was not without some caveats. Serious rain. Unrelenting upmarket shopping. And the resultant shop fronts. Now I know merchants have to display their brand, wave the team colours. But do shop fronts have to co-exist so uneasily with the upper floors of the structures they inhabit?

The (former) Hotel Central 1932

Were one to remain under the verandahs (a great temptation in the day's steady drizzle) one would come away with the overriding impression that Napier is just another shopping destination - and were one not so resolutely disinterested in shopping tourism, likely a perky little shopping bag or two with something clever inside.

The day of our visit, we really had to look for Deco Napier. Even the Deco Centre was more about shopping and tour booking than a short course on architectural history. The video they showed, and the walking tour guide I picked up, were just what we needed, however.

Colenso House (part thereof) 1932
I passed a few bedraggled guided walking tour groups in dripping rain gear, looking a bit whelmed (under or over wasn't apparent). Me, I sent my man off to Kathmandu, grabbed my little point and shoot, and dodged in and out from under awnings, snapping every candy coloured, speed striped treasure in sight. Most of the time I recorded only the second storey above the parked cars and shop fronts, or the top cornices. And I was happy.

For the rest of these photos, I make no claims, other than their pastel appeal, apparent even on the glummest of days in Napier. Some may reappear in another post, as I investigate the influence of Spanish Mission, Stripped Classical styles and the nod to Frank Lloyd Wright which appear throughout this fascinating town.

It was great to meet in person, ceramics by Clarice Cliff,  in the Deco Museum, our refuge from the worst of the rainstorm (which later developed into a flood, which we avoided by travelling inland to Taupo through just reopened roads.) Clarice Cliff embodies Art Deco, and reminds us that Deco (unlike many architectural styles) was a design movement that spread through all facets of life.

If I've overlooked something, or created a desire to see more, I'd suggest a couple of sites: the Buildings by Name site and the Art Deco Inventory 'Til next time...

No comments:

Post a Comment