Napier, New Zealand: The Town of Art Deco

Napier New Zealand beach
Napier New Zealand beach

Although I’ve been lucky to see many intriguing parts of the world, it was only recently that my wife and I had the opportunity to visit the port of Napier on the North Island of New Zealand. Napier had long been a cruise destination my wife wanted to visit, for reasons that will become apparent later.

Today this town is considered an architectural gem, but in 1931 the people of Napier found themselves contending with a tragedy that would change the town forever, but also give it worldwide acclaim. On February the 3rd of that year the British Royal Naval vessel HMS Veronica had just tied up in Napier’s inner harbor at Hawke’s Bay when Captain Morgan, who commanded the Veronica, heard a loud clamor that he thought must have been an explosion on board.  As he went in search of the damage he was stopped short by a sight onshore. The wharf at Napier was twisting, and beyond it structures were crumbling, collapsing. The town was in the grips of an earthquake, one that was reshaping the landscape before his very eyes.

Quickly the Veronica’s radio officer tapped out news of the tragedy in Morse code to alert the world and summon assistance. He continued to provide a communications link for the town, coordinating the rescue efforts and broadcasting updates on the earthquake and subsequent fires and fatalities.  

That radio officer was my wife’s father.

Within ten minutes of the earthquake, sailors were helping with the rescue work; the HMS Veronica’s presence is credited with averting much of the panic in the population. As a result of my father-in-law’s radio messages for help to Auckland, naval authorities dispatched two cruisers that came with a team of 15 doctors and 11 nurses as well as food, medicine, tents, blankets and tools. Before the arrival of the cruisers, the Veronica party, disciplined and efficient, brought order and confidence to the stricken town.  The sailors “ransacked the town in all directions for food, bedding and clothing” for emergency camps and hospitals.

The sailors also established a food depot, the only one in operation during the first 36 hours. Here they cooked meals for about 2,000 people, and later provided bedding for others. Elsewhere sailors fought fires, moved patients from the shattered hospital, demolished buildings, patrolled the streets (to prevent looting), and sheltered refugees on the Veronica itself.

In the end, the center of their town had been destroyed and 258 people were dead. Nothing would ever be the same.  In fact, the force of the quake was so powerful that it raised 10,000 new acres of land above sea level that had previously been submerged. Gradually however, the people of Napier resolved to restore their beloved city.

But a funny thing happened on the way to rebuilding: Art Deco.  

Napier’s rebuilding took place at a time when Art Deco was both peaking in popularity and changing rapidly, but few commercial buildings were being built elsewhere because of the Great Depression. The result is that Napier became a rare architectural treasure. And today it, along with Miami’s South Beach in Florida, are considered the best-preserved Art Deco towns in the world.  In fact, in 2007 Napier became New Zealand’s first site to be designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Today, Art Deco and architecture enthusiasts from around the world come to Napier. But even those with little interest in architecture find Napier has much to offer.  Birdwatchers get their fill with a visit to the largest mainland colony of gannets at Cape Kidnappers. Wine aficionados can partake of the offerings at over 50 wineries in the area.

On our visit we ambled along the streets downtown, marveling at large-scale examples of Art Deco such as the Old Telegraph Building, and smaller ones such as Kidson’s Building.  The Municipal Theatre, which serves as Napier’s Town Hall, underwent a painstaking restoration in the 1990s, and we drank in every detail as we toured the site. With each successive building we encountered, we felt we were seeing a facet of the era we had never observed before.

But by far the moment with the most impact for us took place during our meeting with the archivist at the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery. We spent a fascinating morning with her, reviewing documents from the 1931 catastrophe. Amongst the records in the museum is the radio log from HMS Veronica. Suddenly, there before my wife’s eyes was her father’s hand writing, recording all the outgoing emergency messages he had sent some 78 years earlier! The sight brought tears to her eyes.

Later during our cruise vacation, we visited Auckland, where my wife experienced another nostalgic moment at the naval museum in Devonport. There amongst the pictures displayed, she was able to identify her father carrying a stretcher in Napier.

At home in Scotland, we treasure the telegraph key my father-in-law used back then – it was later presented to him by Commodore Geoffrey Blake, commander of the New Zealand squadron of the Royal Navy at the time, in honor of his role in the rescue efforts. But it took seeing the place that was the site of so much tragedy and renewal to really bring the experience of what he went through to life.

The port of Napier too is an inspiration. The architectural jewel of today is enduring evidence that beauty can emerge in the aftermath of destruction.