• Donna Zabel

Napier--A Quick Trip Back in Time

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

Art Deco has always been a favorite architectural style. Growing up in Chicago I loved wandering around the downtown State Street buildings as much for the buildings as the shopping. When I lived in California, we took tours of as many of San Francisco’s grand Art Deco houses as possible. For years my guest bedroom was furnished with some old Art Deco inspired pieces I found in a used furniture store. My favorite building in New York City has always been the elegant Chrysler Building. I’m used to seeking out vestiges of the style in major cities. I never expected to find an entire city of Art Deco buildings and landmarks in a little town in New Zealand.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

Napier is a small, unassuming town nestled toward the southern part of Hawke’s Bay on the east coast of the North Island. There wasn’t much special about the town until February 3, 1931 when the largest earthquake ever recorded in New Zealand at 7.8 magnitude struck. The coast was wrenched up several meters. What wasn’t destroyed in the initial quake did not survive the ensuing fires in a city of mostly wood buildings. People rushed to open areas, setting up a makeshift camp in the adjoining Nelson Park. Still, over a hundred did not survive.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

The decision to rebuilt was immediate, with advertisements sent all over New Zealand. The response was immediate and almost overwhelming. During the Depression, any work was in demand, and tradespeople from all over New Zealand flocked to the devastated city. This was the era of bold geometric Art Deco designs, and the people of Napier were in love with it. Within two years, an entire city was built in the unique design. However, for years being a city with an entire Art Deco business district was not appreciated. Now there is a special Art Deco Trust staffed by a network of volunteers to host narrated tours throughout the district. Following my enthusiastic guide around the building as she pointed out interesting decorative elements and wonderful patterns was wonderful, but I would have loved touring in one of the vintage cars for hire. And I wish I’d had more time in the Trust’s gift shop—an adorable Art Deco hat would make the perfect souvenir.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0


· If visiting Napier from a cruise ship, allow at least an hour and a half driving distance from the port.

· If time allows, stroll along the waterfront. Everything there was completely rebuilt after the earthquake.

· The Art Deco Trust guides are all volunteers and have wonderful stories to tell about Napier. Encourage your guide to share a few


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