The 1931 earthquake saw Napier rebuilt in line with the times. Although Art Deco embraced
modernity, glorifying progress, the machine age and the Gatsby-style high life, the onset
of the Great Depression pared down these excesses, and Napier’s version was informed by
the privations of an austere era. At the same time, the architects looked for inspiration to
California’s Santa Barbara – which, just six years earlier, had suffered the same fate and risen
from the ashes. They adopted fountains (a symbol of renewal), sunbursts, chevrons, lightning
flashes and fluting to embellish the highly formalized but asymmetric designs. In Napier,
what emerged was a conglomeration of early-twentieth-century design, combining elements
of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Californian Spanish Mission style, Egyptian and Mayan
motifs, stylized floral designs and even Maori imagery. For the best part of half a century,
the city’s residents merely daubed the buildings in grey or muted blue paint. Fortunately,
this meant that when a few savvy visionaries recognized the city’s potential in the mid-1980s
and formed the Art Deco Trust, everything was still intact. The trust continues to promote
the preservation of buildings and provides funding for shopkeepers to pick out distinctive
architectural detail in pastel colours similar to those originally used.

You can get a sense of Art Deco Napier by wandering along the half-dozen streets of the
city centre, notably Emerson Street. Worth special attention here is the ASB Bank, on the
corner of Hastings Street. Its exterior is adorned with fern shoots and a mask from the head of
a taiaha (a long fighting club), while its interior has a fine Maori rafter design. On Tennyson
Street, look for the flamboyant Daily Telegraph building, with stylized fountains, and the
Municipal Theatre, built in the late 1930s in a strikingly geometric form.

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