Ah-woo-gah! Ah-woo-gah! Even the sound of a car horn had a certain class back then, I reflect, while watching a fleet of 1920s and ’30s vehicles parade through Dalton Street, then roll slowly onto the cobblestones of Emerson Street. Among them are perky Austins, bold Buicks, sassy Chevrolets, chromed Chryslers and jaunty Jaguars.
Dressed to the nines, the drivers and passengers wave royally to the crowds thronging the streets. Those in cars with dicky seats or open tops seem to attract the most stirring chorus of approval, particularly a group of four attired in Biggles hats, leather jackets, jodhpurs and aviator goggles.
As the last of the cars pass and the purr of their engines dies away, an altogether throatier growl echoes through Napier. Belching blue exhaust smoke, a motley collection of motorbikes throttles into view: Indians, Harleys, BSAs, Nortons and Triumphs. Without exception, blokes are at the handlebars, but sitting elegantly in the sidecar of one is a young woman in 1920s garb. She is given a rousing cheer that momentarily muffles even the motorbike engines.
Later, while waiting for the costume parade to begin, I take in the lively jazz of the Twin City Stompers and the dextrous voices of the Bay Harmony barbershop chorus. Soon I’m transfixed as a blizzard of colour and style streams past. Charlie Chaplin strides by, cane twirling and Hitler moustache slightly askance. Men in striped jackets and straw boaters grin good-naturedly; other, less casual chaps look dapper in pinstriped suits and two-tone shoes. The years between the world wars were surely the most exuberant time for men’s fashions in the last two centuries.
But if the men are exuberant, the women are exquisite. Some are decked out in the loose-fitting dresses of the 1920s while others cut a dash in the sleeker, more curving contours of the 1930s. Most sport extravagant hats and handbags, and several flaunt foot-long cigarette holders. A number of shapely shoulders are draped with fox furs, each complete with head and paws.
This is Napier in February 2003, on the occasion of the city’s 15th annual Art Deco Weekend. Revellers have descended on the city in droves, and without exception they seem to be having a frightfully good time. The 1930s were not just about style, they were about showing it off as well—something modern-day participants seem keen to emulate. The atmosphere is upbeat, jovial—in a word, spiffing. While the attractions of sunshine, wine and food may have revived Napier as a tourist destination in the 1990s, Art Deco has utterly transformed it.
I spent my teenage years in Taradale, a suburb of Napier, in the 1980s. Like many of my fellow students at Taradale High School, I left after the seventh form for bigger and brighter things—university, the mandatory OE, the attractions of larger cities. Napier had a good climate and was a nice place to grow up, but we considered it too isolated, too far away from where things really happened.
As for “Art Deco,” I had never heard the term. Even if I’d been told that since the early 1930s Napier’s central business district had boasted the greatest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world, I doubt that I would have been impressed. Some of the façades lay hidden behind timber cladding, added during renovations, and the buildings themselves were mostly painted a drab white or grey. If I had been asked to describe my impressions of Napier’s civic architecture, “square and ugly” would have been my adjectives of choice.
These days Napier has shucked off that dowdy appearance, and its residents are better informed. The city’s Art Deco legacy has become an immense source of local pride and international interest, and even overshadows Hawke’s Bay’s vineyards as a tourist attraction. The motifs, designs and architectural lines so characteristic of between-the-wars buildings have been highlighted in either the bold colours of the 1920s or the subtler pastels of the 1930s. The city council even offers paint subsidies to businesses wanting to renovate using authentic Art Deco colours—cream, buff, ochre, pink, green and blue. The Art Deco Weekend attracts over 10,000 visitors into the city during February, an increasing number of them from overseas. Napier has become a heritage destination.
The transformation has happened almost overnight. The first Art Deco Weekend, held in 1989, involved just 15 people and five cars from the Hawke’s Bay Vintage Car Club. Now the whole town dresses up. If you’re not in period costume, you’re out of place. Some people go to enormous efforts to find suitable attire. In 2003, one woman appeared in a 1928 gown which she had had restored after it had been discovered in an Auckland dump.
The car parade is so popular that for a period of hours Napier’s traffic grinds down to Auckland pace. Over recent years the weekend has expanded to fill four days, and there are now more than 60 featured events. According to a 2003 Waikato University economic-impact survey, the event is worth over $4 million to the region.
This renaissance is really the city’s second. The first came after the fateful day of February 3, 1931, when the ground shook, the skies darkened and the city collapsed. The Napier earthquake—now referred to as the Hawke’s Bay earthquake—remains New Zealand’s biggest natural disaster. Of the 256 people who lost their lives, 162 died in Napier.
While many of the wooden houses on Bluff Hill survived the magnitude-7.8 earthquake, the vast majority of brick buildings in the central business district crumpled. In just two-and-a-half minutes the heart of Napier was destroyed. Within minutes, several fires—three starting in local pharmacies—broke out and proceeded to rage through the town, burning what wooden structures remained standing.
No New Zealand town had ever experienced devastation on such a scale, but after the dust had settled Napier’s citizens quickly resolved to rebuild. However, it soon became clear that the new town would have to be vastly different from the old. On February 21, 1931, just 18 days after the earthquake, the government’s Buildings Regulations Committee met with the aim of “improving the standard of building construction in the Dominion in relation to earthquake resistance.”
The committee concluded that many lives had been lost as a result of collapsing chimneys or falling masonry. Especially deadly had been the heavy pediments and parapets of Napier’s Gothic Revival and Victorian buildings, which had crushed people as they had fled outside. While wooden buildings had withstood the quake much better than brick, they had succumbed to fire. The few buildings that had survived relatively intact had a common characteristic: they were built of reinforced concrete. So ferro-concrete became to 1930s Napier what brick and plaster had been to the previous era. Buildings would have no heavy pediments, the streets would be widened, and—rare for the times—the town’s electricity and telephone lines would be laid underground.
Napier stood on the brink of transformation. Almost complete destruction had provided a unique opportunity for the city to be rebuilt using the most modern styles and methods. Reconstruction occurred in a climate of remarkable co-operation. Local architects, including J. Louis Hay, Finch & Westerholm, E.A. Williams and Natusch & Sons, collaborated to redesign the town centre. Young graduates, recruited from the Auckland School of Architecture, brought fresh ideas with them. Together they worked to create a new-look Napier.
It would be a mistake, however, to attribute Napier’s architectural reincarnation entirely to post-1931 design, as the city already had several moderne buildings. One or two in the Stripped Classical style, fashionable in the 1920s, had survived the earthquake, along with the impressively columned Neo-Classical Napier Public Trust Office on Tennyson Street.
Spanish Mission style was also in evidence. It had been in vogue in the American West since the 1890s, notably in California, and featured adobe-style exteriors, terracotta-tiled roofs, and window frames frequently flanked by twisted columns. In 1925, the city of Santa Barbara had experienced a severe earthquake, and had adopted Spanish Mission for its new look. Napier’s Harston’s Building, built in 1930, reflected this Spanish-American influence. Although badly damaged in 1931, it was later strengthened with a metal cage, and a new façade was constructed.
But the style that has become synonymous with Napier is Art Deco. While the popular slogan “Art Deco Capital of the World” may be an exaggeration, Napier certainly embodies 1920s and ’30s architecture in a way matched by very few other cities. Taking its name from a popular 1925 Paris exhibition entitled “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes,” Art Deco combined modern industrial design with strong decorative motifs. Characteristic of Art Deco architecture were geometric shapes, clean, symmetrical lines, bold silhouettes and expressive ornamentation. Decorative elements such as sunbursts, fountains and zigzags were all the rage, as was anything associated with speed, power and flight.
So popular was the style that it came to embrace every aspect of design, from architecture to clothing, cars to furniture, cigarette cases to household appliances. With modern materials and machine manufacturing came a new, and often cheaper, way of doing things, and Art Deco reflected an optimism about the place of technology in urban life.
At the same time, women were gaining independence and increasingly flouting social conventions with short dresses, shocking dances and outrageous hairstyles. The image of the free, unfettered woman, often incorporated into posters and statues, remains an enduring symbol of the era. Art Deco became a total style, and the first truly 20th-century one—and Napier embraced the new look with fervour.
The city’s new business district opened after just two years of frantic reconstruction. One hundred and eight new shops had been built, with a further 43 still to be completed. Napier and nearby Hastings, which had also suffered major damage in the earthquake, became the only cities in the world to be built during the Depression.
Although reconstruction continued into the late 1930s, in January 1933 Napier celebrated its rebirth with a carnival, calling itself “the newest city on the globe.” One 1933 magazine article boasted: “It is the new buildings themselves which intrigue the imagination and captivate the eye with their simple, graceful lines, soft colours and small effective decorations in brighter tones.” Another in 1937 enthused, “It can truthfully be said that out of the disaster has come great good.”
The best way to learn about Napier’s architecture is to join one of the Art Deco Trust’s walking tours. The trust has its offices in the old Napier Central Fire Station on Tennyson Street. Fittingly, this was one of the few buildings in the city centre to escape the fires of 1931, but earthquake damage meant it was largely rebuilt in 1932.
After watching a brief slide show that gives an account of the earthquake and introduces the architectural styles of the 1930s, my group heads up Tennyson Street. Elaine Buxton, one of 60 volunteer guides employed by the trust, soon has us distinguishing between Stripped Classical, Spanish Mission and Art Deco. We pause to look at the 1932 Halsbury Chambers, designed by Louis Hay. Hay was among the most active of the Napier reconstruction architects, and often took his inspiration from celebrated American architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan.
Halsbury Chambers was one of the first buildings of the new Napier to feature a ziggurat, a design feature which came into prominence in 1920s America. Skyscrapers were beginning to dominate city skylines and were cutting down the amount of light reaching the streets below. Architects tried to alleviate the problem by stepping back the upper storeys in the form of a terraced pyramid. Two of the most famous examples of the style are New York’s Chrysler and Empire State Buildings. Napier’s two-storey buildings were hardly skyscrapers, but the ziggurat had nevertheless become fashionable.
By far the most flamboyant of central Napier’s Art Deco buildings is the E.A Williams-designed Daily Telegraph Building (1932), also on Tennyson Street. Napier businessman Pat Benson has recently restored it, providing a shining example of how locals have come to embrace the Art Deco theme of the city. It features a central vault with a ziggurat top, a balustrade decorated with zigzags, sunbursts around the door and fountain motifs atop columns. During the recent renovations, an intermediate floor, added in the 1970s, was removed to reveal a beautiful glass-block ceiling.
At the ASB Bank, on the corner of Hastings and Emerson Streets, Elaine points out elegant Maori kowhaiwhai patterns on the ceiling. In the 1920s, people were fascinated by ancient cultures such as those of Egypt and South America, and elements from these were often adopted as decorations. In New Zealand, the trend naturally extended to using Maori designs.
Two other buildings on the same corner—the National Bank and Norwich Union—were demolished in 1983. More than a dozen others have also been lost or, as Elaine puts it, “inappropriately altered.” On Herschell Street, Elaine indicates unsightly changes made in the 1970s to the otherwise stylish Hay-designed Hawke’s Bay Museum, built between 1936 and 1938. Restoration is on the museum’s agenda, she tells us.
Guides such as Elaine are the backbone of the Art Deco Trust, says the trust’s publicist, Peter Mooney. Most are retired folk who enjoy leading tours because they get to meet people from all over the world (70 per cent of tour participants are overseas visitors) and have a chance to “brag about their city.”
Pride in the city’s architecture is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was international interest that initially spurred Napier to take its Art Deco legacy seriously. In 1981, a group of overseas planners and architects—largely from Britain and the USA—visited Napier and were very impressed with the city’s collection of 1930s concrete buildings. That interest prompted local architect Barry Marshall, from the Ministry of Works and Development, to commission a book on the subject. The Art Deco Architecture of Napier, by Heather Ives, was launched in 1982 in tandem with a photographic display at the Hawke’s Bay Museum. Shortly afterwards, film-maker Peter Wells began shooting a TVNZ documentary on the city, using as its title the 1933 slogan “The Newest City on the Globe.”
In 1984, a group of local enthusiasts formed the Art Deco Group (which evolved into the Art Deco Trust in 1987) to preserve and promote what they believed to be an “architectural collection of world importance.” A year later, the group decided to stage a premier of Wells’ film at the museum’s theatre, combined with a public walk through the city, displays of Art Deco memorabilia and vintage cars. Expecting around 100 people, the Art Deco enthusiasts were staggered when 1100 showed up. Only then did they realise just how much interest in the city’s architecture lay bubbling under the surface.
While the majority of Napier’s 1920s and ’30s buildings have a Historic Places Trust rating (mostly category 2), this alone does not guarantee protection. The Art Deco Trust therefore actively encourages local businesses to preserve their premises. With council support, they have been extraordinarily successful. Of the 160 buildings constructed between 1931 and 1937 in the town centre, 144 remain intact.
Even in my home suburb of Taradale, Art Deco has come of age. When fast-food giant McDonald’s planned to demolish the old Taradale Hotel on Meeanee Road in the 1990s, pressure from the local community led to a change of plans, and McDonald’s restored the building instead. It and a restaurant in Melbourne are the only two “McDecos” in the world.
A swarm of Art Deco Weekend spectators is crowding Napier’s Sound Shell for the Bathing Belles competition. It’s a warm, sunny day of the sort that Hawke’s Bay folk like to boast about, and the Pacific Ocean rolls in like a series of uncurling fists onto the pebbly shore. A seemingly endless row of Norfolk pines stretches along Marine Parade towards distant Cape Kidnappers, shaped like a baguette on the horizon.
The Sound Shell, designed by J.T. Watson in the mid-1930s to commemorate the new Napier, is a giant expression of that most optimistic symbol of Art Deco, the sunburst. It’s an appropriate venue for a display of swimwear. Soon, strutting their stuff across the stage are several guys and dolls in the not-so-scanty bathing trunks of the Deco era. Judging is a fairly rudimentary affair, based entirely on the bellows and whistles of the crowd. The fellow who was Charlie Chaplin in the costume parade easily wins the men’s novelty prize, while a shy lass in blue with a parasol more narrowly steals the women’s prize. Suitably togged-up and cutting a muscular figure is the MC, the irrepressible Bertie.
Bertie is undoubtedly the popular face of Napier’s Art Deco Weekend. Clarence Bertram St John Fitz Montague—Bertie for short—is the invention of Napier thespian John Cocking. Originally from England, Cocking moved to Napier in 1982, where he worked as an accountant. Later he turned to full-time acting, for four years playing Manuel in Auckland’s Faulty Towers restaurant.
In 1995, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Art Deco Trust’s walking tours, he decided to create a 1930s character based largely on P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster. In his spare time, Cocking began strolling the streets of Napier dressed as his alter ego. Locals loved it, as did visitors. The surprise element of the act particularly appealed to him. “People suddenly saw me dressed in 1930s clothes, strolling along, or coming out of a café, and it was as if I’d been frozen in time and just popped out,” he recalls.
Gradually the role evolved into a full-time job. For the four years leading up to 2000, Cocking worked as the Art Deco Weekend co-ordinator and publicist (the role Mooney now fills). In 1999, there wasn’t just the weekend to contend with but the fifth Art Deco World Congress, too. Since 2000, the city council has employed Bertie part-time as Napier’s official ambassador, and he remains the MC of numerous events over the Art Deco Weekend. Bertie in top hat and tails appears at the opening soirée; Bertie in boater and striped blazer mingles at the more informal events.
Cocking says he owns more than 25 different outfits, including nine lounge suits, four blazers, four sets of formal evening wear and one morning suit. Military garb was big in the 1930s, and for variety Bertie sometimes appears in an army, navy or air-force uniform. Locals often donate these outfits to him—which is just as well, says Cocking, as such attire is now getting expensive. “The op-shop days are just about gone,” he says. Cocking answers his cellphone (one modern concession that a busy 1930s chap has to make) with a cheery “Bertie, what ho!” and greets a steady stream of passers-by as we sip coffees at an Emerson Street café. When one woman asks after his health, he purrs, “I’m splendid . . . in the pink, darling, in the pink.”
Cocking brims with enthusiasm about Napier. Unlike other Art Deco centres of the world—Miami, Los Angeles, New York—Napier, he says, is wonderfully person-sized. “You can walk around it gently in an hour, whereas if you go to Miami’s South Beach, where there’s a square mile of Art Deco, you have to drive round in a bus to see the buildings.”Of the Art Deco Weekend, Cocking says that in recent years it’s not just the number of people who have taken to dressing up that has pleased him, but also the quality of the costumes—the efforts people make to get even fine details right. “While many men used to be dragged along by their wives, now they’re dressing up, too,” he says.
He gives me an example. Socks were not elasticised in the 1930s, so blokes often wore small garters—not unlike ladies’ suspenders—to keep them up. “I’ve got two pairs, because I’m Bertie and I need to wear these things on occasions,” Cocking remarks, “but I know several chaps who now wear them, too. The amazing thing is, unless they’re prepared to pull their trousers up to the knee, no-one is ever going to see them!”
Another string to Bertie’s Art Deco bow is a small business running tours in a 1934 Buick. This he does with business partner Lee Anne Freeman—alias Penelope Partington-Ffyes—who operates an Art Deco costume-hire store. “She dresses ’em, and I drive ’em,” says Cocking. Recently, Bertie and Penelope realised there was one thing missing from their tours: there was no one place in Napier where people could go and see “Domestic Deco” and experience how Joe Ordinary of the 1930s lived. Penelope was looking to buy another home, so she purchased a 1939 house in Napier’s Art Deco suburb of Marewa—“stucco, flat roof, the whole piece”—and has since fitted it out completely in Deco style.
In contrast to 1930s Bertie, Penelope is a 1920s kind of gal who favours what she describes as a “Marcel-waved hair, pleated, drop-waisted flapperish look.” As she escorts me around her home, I’m amazed by all the Deco details, from oak furniture to hanging wall vases and a ziggurat-shaped radio. Not only does Penelope look the part, but later at the Soft Shoe Shuffle I watch her dance a polished Charleston. Deco to the core.
On Bluff Hill, Americans Amy and Cornell Walewski have created a luxury Art Deco bed and breakfast in a restored villa. The couple developed an interest in the era after living in an Art Deco house in San Jose. Then, on a trip around New Zealand in 1999, they discovered Napier. After buying the villa over the Internet, they moved here in 2000. Without hesitation, Cornell tells me, “Art Deco brought us to Napier. We feel proud to live here, somewhere that’s unique.”Soon after arriving, the couple spent six months scouring the country’s antique and second-hand stores for Art Deco furniture, paintings, crockery, vases everything imaginable. They then gutted the interior of the villa and created four elegant guest rooms, Cornell, an interior painter and artist, designing and decorating each in Art Deco style.
The Walewskis provide period attire for those of their guests who want to dress up, and in the evening Cornell runs them to restaurants in town in his 1938 Buick. “If our guests are not into Art Deco when they arrive, they are by the time they leave,” he says with a grin.
Despite the popularity of the Art Deco Weekend, the trust cannot run the show without outside sponsorship. Brebner Print, one of the country’s largest printing businesses, has been helping finance the weekend for 10 years, six of those as principal sponsor. Neville Smith, one of Brebner’s directors, is a Napier local with a big passion for the city and Art Deco. Smith attributes the success of the weekend to its being a “total package.” “If you’ve got a vintage car, this is the only place in New Zealand—I would say in the world—where you can live the life for a weekend,” he says. “You dress up and take on a whole new personality.”
Brebner’s sponsorship is not only financial. In 2003 the company laid on a steam train, offering Wellingtonians a genuinely 1930s way of arriving at the Art Deco Weekend. The train, pulled by a JA Class locomotive based in Paekakariki, is now set to be a regular fixture, but Smith has only begun building up a head of steam. He’d like to see two more steam trains coming to the event, one from the north, linking Gisborne and Wairoa with Napier, and another ferrying passengers between Napier and Hastings.“It’s about involving the whole of Hawke’s Bay,” he says. “After all, the earthquake was centred between Dannevirke and Wairoa rather than in Napier itself.” He is also investigating ways of getting a double-decker bus here. “Trains, planes and automobiles are what it’s all about,” he says.
Smith himself has more than a passing interest in automobiles. He owns an immaculate 1936 Buick Limousine Limited Series 90. Full restoration of the car took 30 months, and he tells me the upholstery bill alone came to $25,000. The eight-passenger sedan weighs 2.2 tonnes and is powered by a 120 hp Straight 8 engine. In 1936 it was the most expensive production car on the market, costing £1200. (By comparison, a Baby Austin cost £180.) Only 116 were ever made for right-hand drive, Smith informs me, adding that “King Edward and Mrs Simpson, at the time of the abdication, owned two”—a fact which no doubt stuck in the craw of British car manufacturers.
After looking at a second Buick Smith is having restored, we drive down Marine Parade and pass Napier’s controversial Te Pania Hotel. Smith refers to it disparagingly as “The Half Bucket,” declaring it “the worst building I’ve ever seen in my life.” He’d like to see more restrictions on the design of new buildings in the city centre, ensuring developments keep with local character. Despite the fact that it was completed in 2002, the multi-storey hotel seems to reflect the worst of 1970s architecture, and is decidedly at odds with Napier’s largely two-storey cityscape.
But developments such as Te Pania Hotel have arisen because of a scarcity of accommodation in central Napier. Motel vacancies are few and far between during the Art Deco Weekend, with many rooms booked out months in advance. The modest size of venues and the shortage of accommodation are limiting the growth of the weekend—something I suggest may not be a bad thing. Smith disagrees, saying he’d like the weekend to become a festival by 2005, spanning 10 days over two weekends, with events less compressed. “That way people could spread their enjoyment over a longer period without getting Decoed out.”
My next art deco event is on an entirely different scale from limited-edition Buicks. On a slope at the top end of Tennyson Street, drivers gather for the annual Soapbox Derby. Again, I can’t help but be impressed by the lengths to which participants have gone. I talk to Rory Cook, dressed for the part in schoolboy racing attire, who tells me this is his third derby. His green machine has a sleek, curved bonnet. “My dad and me made it,” he says proudly. “It took a couple of months. We went to the dump to get some stuff for it.”
“How fast does it go?” I ask.“As fast as Dad pushes it!”Another dad, Nigel Purdy, has created an elaborate Chitty Chitty Bang Bang replica with his daughter, Victoria. She easily wins her heat. Other derby entrants have less classy contraptions: there’s a bathtub on wheels and a rocket-shaped thing powered by a fire extinguisher (one of Neville Smith’s ideas). Some of the soapbox cars run true, others get the speed wobbles, and still more have little oomph left by the time they finish. There’s one crash, but no one is injured, and the driver gets a cheer when he stands up.
Between heats of the derby, four Keystone Cops cavort about in pursuit of a striped burglar, who always seems to evade them. As a consequence, anyone in a striped shirt is fair game for a dressing-down. The coppers’ slapstick antics cause enormous hilarity among the children, who appear to have unlimited appreciation for such humour.
The family atmosphere of the Art Deco Weekend must be the envy of other event managers. There is virtually no drunkenness, and the revelling is all done in the most decorous sense of the word. And with more and more people dressing up—including children—the atmosphere gets better every year. Bertie sums it up nicely: “Vintage cars, jazz music, people in costume—it seems to be some sort of magic mix. That’s probably the attraction of the weekend, the opportunity to leave the modern world behind for a couple days.”Perhaps it is no coincidence that the first Art Deco Weekend was held two years into the economic recession that began with the 1987 stock-market crash—the same time it took to rebuild Napier after the earthquake. Is there something about adversity that brings out the best in people?Bertie thinks so. “That’s what fascinates me about Napier,” he says. “Look what happened to it, and yet they rebuilt the blooming thing. What optimism! I often say to tourists, ‘Imagine it happening in your town today.’ What’s more, they did it in the middle of the greatest depression the world has known.”
No doubt rebuilding helped take people’s minds off the earthquake tragedies that haunted many. Each Art Deco Weekend there is a memorial service to those who died in the quake. In 2003 it centred on readings from the memoirs of Earnest Dashwood-Evans, a seaman who was aboard HMS Veronica, an English navy ship fortuitously in port on the day of the disaster. Dashwood-Evans recorded, “Dreadful indeed were many of the sights I saw that day. One of the worst was the sight of a father come stumbling out of the ruins with the headless body of his baby daughter in his arms—excitedly crying that he had saved her.”
As a new father myself, I find this passage impossible to read without a lump forming in my throat. I wonder at the fortitude of those who rebuilt Napier. What would they think of the Art Deco Weekend, of Napier’s modern renaissance?Bertie has an answer for me. “If they could see us now, having all this fun with what they built, I think they would say, ‘Good on you.’