At any moment, I expected to see F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald emerge from any one of Napier’s Art Deco buildings, or a flapper or a chap in new wingtip shoes to spontaneously burst into a fox trot or Charleston along the sidewalk. Even though I wasn’t here for the city’s annual Art Deco Festival, when Gatsby picnics, vintage car parades, and Prohibition parties celebrate the city’s connection to this unique era, the feeling of being alive during the Jazz Age was palpable. Napier isn’t merely a hermetically sealed time capsule from nearly a century ago, though; it has, for example, one of the world’s best aquariums as well as a thriving wine scene. Nevertheless, it’s the collection of low-rise 1930s buildings that truly makes this place special. These are my favorites.
#1 Daily Telegraph Building
Completed in 1933 as the new offices and printing factory of The Daily Telegraph, this symmetrical two-story building is arguably the city’s finest example of Art Deco perfection. Constructed of reinforced concrete, the building’s strong vertical lines, ziggurat frame around the front doors, zigzag pattern in the wrought-iron balcony above the entrance, and stylized palm-like designs atop each of the pilasters across the façade combine to present the epitome of the style. The paper ran for over a century until it folded in 1999, merging with another paper to become Hawke’s Bay Today. The building is currently occupied by a real estate company, but The Daily Telegraph lettering still remains above the second-story windows.
#2 Temperance & General Building
Napier’s most recognizable edifice, and one on which pedestrians rely for the accurate time, the iconic Temperance & General Building occupies a corner lot on Marine Parade, overlooking the city’s bandshell and the sparkling blue waters of Hawke’s Bay. Completed in 1936 as offices for the Temperance & General Insurance Co., it was one of the city’s largest commercial buildings. Its largely undecorated façade is notable for its abundant fenestration and corner tower, which is topped by a drum, verdigris-green dome with porthole-shaped windows, and illuminated clock. Registered under the Historic Places Act of 1980, the T&G building now contains a couple of apartments, The Dome boutique hotel, and the Lone Star Café, which serves up some of the best lamb in the city.
#3 Public Trust Building
Like its counterpart in Wellington, the Public Trust Building in Napier was built to show the power and strength of the government. It also conveyed strength in a very literal way: It’s one of the handful of survivors of the 1931 earthquake. The building is particularly revered here, as the Public Trust played a financially critical role in helping Napier’s businesses and citizens after the disaster, and the fact that it remained standing gave locals the confidence and faith that things would work out. Opened in 1922, the two-storey fireproof building presents a reassuring façade, with a recessed entrance, a row of Doric columns that evokes a Greek temple, a detailed cornice, and palmettes running along the entire roofline. The Public Trust moved out in 1998, and the preserved building is now occupied by offices and a gymnasium.
#4 Deco Centre
My first stop in Napier was the Deco Centre, where I watched an orientation video to the city and its remarkable comeback, picked up the self-guided tour of the city, and made a mental note of the stylish Art Deco items for sale. Besides being an information hub, the Deco Centre is also one of the city’s most beautiful buildings. Originally the Napier Central Fire Station, the 1926 brick building was badly damaged during the earthquake. Rebuilt by local architect James Augustus Louis Hay (Napier’s version of London’s Christopher Wren, or Ljubljana’s Jože Plečnik) with reinforced concrete, the building maintains its original design, including three large arched windows and doorways on the ground floor that were the original bays for the fire engines. Like so many other repurposed buildings in Napier, this one also acknowledges its past, by maintaining the NFB (Napier Fire Board) on the upper façade.
#5 National Tobacco Company Building
Another Hay building, the single-story former headquarters of the National Tobacco Company is regarded as one of the city’s most elegant commercial buildings from the post-earthquake rebuild. Hay designed the building on a concept of an arch within a square, with a series of receding rectangular forms that fall back from the main arched entrance. The 1933 Art Deco building, with flashes of the preceding Art Nouveau style, features a wonderful entrance, with wood doors surrounded by sculpted roses and native bulrushes. The rose motif continues in the arch above the doors and in the lamps beside them as well as inside, where it can be spied in the domed skylight, the capitals of a few columns, and the leadlight windows of the offices. Gleaming brass banisters, ornate lamps, and a marble foyer are available for viewing, as the new owners of the building keep it open for visitors to admire.