Art Deco Weekend: Napier, NZ

Due to the 1931 earthquake, much of Napier’s architecture is Art Deco style. Find out more about the earthquake, and how Napier returns to the 1930s each February.

Driving into Napier during the third weekend of February is like travelling back about eighty years. The streets are full of dapper chaps in top hats, and flappers wearing shift dresses and sequinned bandeaux. A festival atmosphere prevails, with activity throughout the town.

The 1931 Earthquake, and How Napier Became an Art Deco City

Unfortunate events led to Napier becoming an ‘art deco city’. At approximately 10.46am on February 3, 1931, it was rocked by an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale. Although the earthquake was estimated to be centred 20 kilometres north-north-east of the city, its effects were most severe in Napier. Brick buildings fared badly in the earthquake, and many wooden buildings were destroyed in the resulting fires. 157 people had died in Napier, and the city lay in ruins.
In March 1932, the Napier Borough Council appointed J. S. Barton and engineer L. B. Campbell as commissioners of Napier, which meant that they, and local committees, had the unenviable task of leading the reconstruction the city. Tin Town, a temporary shopping centre, was used for several years while the new city centre was under construction. The four Napier architectural firms banded together as the Napier Associated Architects, and undertook most of the reconstruction work. Their favoured architectural styles include art deco, Spanish mission and early Modernism. Art deco was the chosen style for reconstruction for three major reasons: it was safer because it focused on surface decoration instead of “elaborate applied ornament”, it was cheap, and it was prominent and fashionable at the time.

So, each year, the city celebrates the style by having a fun-filled art deco weekend, organised by the Art Deco Trust and Fast Fundraising NZ. It seems that each year the spread of activities gets better, and several are not-to-be-missed.

Art Deco Weekend Events

At the time of the earthquake, sailors from the HMS Veronica, which was moored in the inner harbour, relayed the news and were among the first to offer help to the stricken city. This association is recognised during the weekend’s proceedings. The Veronica Bell parade is a regular fixture, in which the bell is installed in a military ceremony, and guarded by Sea Scouts. Later, it is paraded to the Cathedral for the Swing and a Prayer service, at which the Royal NZ Navy Band provides the music. There is also a “Thank God for the Navy” brunch, with a uniformed officer at each table.
Spectators can watch the RNZAF Red Checkers and the Warbirds Display Team go up up and down, and try not to flinch if it looks like the planes are heading straight for them!

The results of many hours of construction are on display at the Soapbox Derby, and battle it out to find the fastest. For something with a motor, the Deco Show and Shine is the place to be. Vintage cars are on display, jazz music wafts through the air, bathing belles parade, and even

Costumes and Coiffure make an appearance.

Before the Gatsby Picnic, picnic hampers are packed, art deco garb is donned, and places on the lawn are eagerly sought. Those who don’t feel like picnicking can still wander past and admire all of the authentic costumes.