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All things Art Deco in Napier, New Zealand

After a deadly 1931 quake, the North Island town rebuilt itself in the then-modern style. Today, fans of the curvy, free-flowing style flock to the city to revel in all things Art Deco.

February 26, 2012|By Karen Leland, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The Dome, with its rooftop terrace, is in the T&G building, an iconic Art Deco structure dating to 1937 on the Marine Parade in Napier, New Zealand.
The Dome, with its rooftop terrace, is in the T&G building, an iconic… (Dome )

Reporting from Napier, New Zealand — At 10:47 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1931, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale shook the town of Napier, onNew Zealand'sNorth Island, killing 161 people. The fires that followed consumed all but a few reinforced concrete buildings. In 21/2 minutes, Napier ceased to exist.

In a bold move two years later, the residents of Napier broke with their colonial tradition and rebuilt the town in Art Deco style, made popular in Europe of the '20s. This transformation made Napier a leading-edge architectural city and one of the most modern of its day.

I had been obsessed with the 1920s since my stint playing Vera in a community theater production of "Mame." The sartorial style, with its flapper dresses and bobbed hair, and the free-flowing curves and waves of the period's architecture, has always resonated strongly with me.

So when I discovered that Napier was only a 20-minute drive from the conference where I would be speaking in Hawke's Bay, I jumped at the chance to see first-hand the architectural era of "The Great Gatsby" alive and kicking.

Today, of the 164 buildings constructed between 1920 and 1940, 140 remain, forming a time capsule of design elements — zigzags, sunbursts, Egyptian motifs and geometric patterns — that characterize the style and garner Napier international recognition as the Art Deco capital of the world for its variety and concentration of structures in this distinctive style.

So popular is Napier as an Art Deco destination that every February the townspeople, along with 55,000 visitors from around the world, don period garb, hop in vintage cars and celebrate Art Deco Weekend, full of Gatsby-style celebration.

Thanks to tours organized by the Art Deco Trust, you can experience the history and nostalgia of Napier year-round. Guided and self-guided walks, as well as a vintage car tour, are offered daily and begin at the Art Deco Shop and Visitor Centre on Tennyson Street. Here, travelers can see photographs of the earthquake's aftermath and the town's reconstruction, watch a short film about Napier's history and shop for Art Deco-inspired rugs, vases, books and jewelry.

The guided tours range from an easy one-hour morning walk highlighting the town's building exteriors to an expanded two-hour afternoon tour that includes several interiors. I chose the morning guided tour and was inspired by the passion — and pride —the guide had for the living history that Napier represented. For those who prefer to go at their own pace, a self-guided tour brochure is available that highlights more than 90 structures, including the Public Trust Building (1922), with its Classical Revival design; the Daily Telegraph Building (1932), a flamboyant example of Art Deco zigzags and sunbursts; and the AMP Building (1934), inspired by the Prairie style of Frank Lloyd Wright.

After getting my fill of Napier's Art Deco treasures, I strolled along the Marine Parade, a pedestrian promenade that runs along Hawke's Bay and weaves through town, providing a long stretch of palm tree-lined streets filled with shops, coffee bars, sidewalk cafes and art galleries featuring the work of New Zealand artists and craftspersons.

Napier claims some of the country's best printmaking, painting and applied craft artists. Statements Gallery of Contemporary New Zealand Art has a rich collection of fine craft jewelers. I was so enamored with pieces by Ruth Baird, a nationally known jeweler who works with crocheted and knitted silver, oxidized titanium and lava stones, that I shot my entire shopping budget on a necklace I just couldn't say no to.

Across Tennyson Street is Paper-works, offering limited-edition works on paper from both established and up-and-coming artists. Of particular note are pieces by local Napier artist Martin Poppelwell, best known for his organic ceramics and graphic-inspired prints. You can find a more extensive collection of Poppelwell's work at the Black Barn Gallery in nearby Havelock North, about 15 minutes away.

All that architectural touring and artistic strolling left me famished, so I took a 10-minute drive in search of a culinary respite at the Mission Estate Winery in the Taradale Hills above Napier. Mission Estate, established in 1851 and housed in a restored historic seminary, claims to be New Zealand's oldest winery.

The outdoor dining area looked out over acres of vineyards and was shaded by large, translucent canvas "sails" and the great green and purple grape leaves overhead. The contemporary cuisine and the farm-to-table nature of the produce, meats and fish were an ideal match for the pastoral setting.

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