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Daily Telegraph building
Daily Telegraph building
Driving through Napier
The art deco town of Napier


Thursday, March 13, 2003
David dons his cravat when he tours the New Zealand town where time has stood still.

Napier has a beautiful coastal position on Hawke's Bay. The town was planned in 1854 and flourished as a commercial regional centre. The bay and hinterland were great sources of food and life was good.

This all changed on February 3, 1931 when an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale with an epicentre just 15kms north of Napier almost spelt the end of the town. The 2½ minutes of terror took 258 of the 30,000 people who lived in the town, as well as cutting the water supply. Fires left the town devastated.

Instead of giving up, the resilient residents got to work and for 23 months slavishly rebuilt their town.

When the ultra-modern town was officially opened, its delightful art deco architecture gave great pride and joy to everyone. It still challenges the cities of Miami and Bath as a wonderful example of the beauty of the design and decor of the time which so well represents the high spiritedness of the roaring '20s.

Art deco's relief stucco was an economical way to beautify buildings during the Great Depression and it replaced the elaborate applications of earlier buildings which caused much damage when they fell. Late in the 1960s people began to realise the beauty and importance of the style and its objets d'art became seriously collectable.

Wandering around Napier is a most pleasant thing to do, and made all the more interesting by joining one of Bertie Montague's tours.

One of the town's best examples is the National Tobacco building. It is spectacular and colourful and was built in 1908 by a tobacco-growing German who was evicted from the town with the onset of WWI. He returned in 1923 and went on to make his fortune. He reconstructed his building after the earthquake and it has much evidence of his love of roses.

The AMP building is also beautiful and enjoyed some good fortune. It had been "de-deco'd" in the 1970s but in the 1990s two brothers decided to buy the building and reinstate its deco glory. Someone who had worked on the site in the '70s came forward with the magnificent original frosted glass doors, much to everyone's delight.

The Daily Telegraph building now belongs to a local entrepreneur who is restoring it and the mezzanine floor has gone, which has created a high ceiling.

The Musical Theatre was built in 1937 and is a classic example of the popular streamline deco and is still being used as a theatre.

The Irish Pub was once a grocery shop and a music shop and still has the original façades. The man who owned the music shop continued to run it in the way it always had been until 1983.

The Auckland Savings Bank building is one of the most famous of the Napier buildings as the 1933 designed interior included traditional Maori designs in the fresh art deco patterns. It was all cleverly and tastefully blended under a typical Maori meeting house roof.

The Gentlemen's Club was built in 1888 and survived the 'quake and is a fascinating building for a small New Zealand town. It holds original billiard tables, much of the furniture and has a Stranger's Room. Ladies were fortunate to be able to dine at the Club, but were never, ever able to become members. When ladies were taken to the Club, they were deposited in the Stranger's Room and their host walked the corridors to ensure all doors to the bar, cards room and so on were closed to her delicate eyes.

Cobden Villa was built in 1870 on Bluff Hill and has been beautifully and faithfully restored and furnished in the art deco style by Amy and Cornel Walewski, a Californian couple who fell in love with Napier and the villa.

The four bedrooms are named after artists of the 1920s and '30s — Cassandre, Erte, Vargas and Chiparus — and are in a wing totally separate from the owners' living quarters. Each room has an ensuite and the wing has its own lounge, conservatory and verandah.

Start the day with breakfast in the conservatory while watching the ocean sunrise, and end it relaxing with a glass of local wine.

The Walewskis have gone into great detail in all they have done at Cobden Villa using furniture from across New Zealand and the world. Some things purchased internationally cost more to ship than to buy. The dining suite of table and 10 chairs came from France and a beautiful pale sofa came from Nebraska. Their 1938 dark blue Buick is the icing on the art deco cake.

Graeme Claridge of Vintage Aviation and Bill, his pilot, are both passionate devotees of art deco. Part of the fun of a flight with Vintage is dressing up — passengers and pilot don 1920s leather jacket, helmet and goggles and the mood is set.

The 1940s Tiger Moth takes passengers wherever they would like to go, be it over the town or past the ranges.

Each February Napier holds a large art deco festival and Graeme's Moth plays an important part in the activities.


The east coast of New Zealand's north island.


Cobden Villa starts at $175 a double a night for bed and breakfast.
Deco Affair Tours with Bertie start at about $15 per person for half an hour.
Qantas flies to Auckland with connections to Napier operated by Air New Zealand starting at $894 per person ex-Sydney; $947 ex-Melbourne and Brisbane; $1208 ex-Adelaide; $1275 ex-Perth and $1521 ex-Darwin. Prices include charges/taxes and are current at time of recording but may vary at time of booking. Seasonal surcharges and conditions apply.

More information

Deco Affair Tours
Box 190 PO Napier New Zealand
Ph: 64 27 241 5279
Fax: 64 835 4491

Cobden Villa
11 Cobden Road, Napier New Zealand
Ph: 64 6835 9065
Fax: 64 6833 9679

Vintage Aviation
Hawke's Bay, New Zealand
Ph: 64 6843 7883

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