Sun, style and heat in the ‘Art Deco Capital of the World’

Late every summer, thousands of people pour into Napier, New Zealand, to dress up in golden age Hollywood costume, cavort about in vintage cars, and generally have a good time.

Anybody might think it was 1940...

Anybody might think it was 1940…

The annual ‘Art Deco Weekend’ has been a fixture on the city calendar for more than a quarter of a century. It’s the latest re-invention in Napier’s long history of self-promotion as a resort. Before that – starting in the 1920s – it was the ‘Nice of the South’, though the climate is Californian. These days, so is the town look – with healthy doses of Miami stirred in.

That’s no coincidence; most of the town centre was rebuilt to the latest styles of the 1930s, after a devastating earthquake and fire destroyed virtually the whole original town centre in February 1931.  Grand plans to build block-spanning Spanish Mission buildings, Santa Barbara-style, were foiled by Depression-era penury. Instead, the place was rebuilt piecemeal as individual owners could afford it. But that produced its own unique result – one of the best collections of small modernist buildings in the world, encompassing a range of styles from Spanish Mission to Chicago School, early streamline and more.

Sun glow over two of the 'deco' buildings in Tennyson Street, Napier.

Sun glow over two of the ‘deco’ buildings in Tennyson Street, Napier.

Today they are all lumped together under the blanket moniker ‘art deco’. What’s left of them, anyway – about a third of these unique ‘deco’ buildings were knocked over in the 1980s, spurring a belated effort to recognise the heritage. Others have come down since in the face of strict earthquake regulations. But that hasn’t stopped the city re-inventing itself around the imagery – and today, thousands of visitors pour in for the annual ‘Art Deco’ weekend to celebrate the heritage and indulge in various light-hearted activities based around the ‘deco’ theme.

I don't know who these guys were, but they looked the part. Ties and waistcoats in 33 deg C heat - 91.4 deg F.

I don’t know who these guys were, but they looked the part. Ties and waistcoats in 33 deg C (91.4 deg F). Must be 1940.

Yes, I'm sure it's 1940...

Yes, I’m sure it’s 1940…

I heard that this 1937 Rolls Royce V12 Phaeton was worth half a million dollars.

Is that a 1937 Rolls Royce V12 Phantom III gliding into view?

Suddenly it was 1940...

Lots and lots and lots of people…

Vintage car parade, Napier, New Zealand.

Parasols and deco…

As I walked the downtown streets with their vintage cars; their men in flat caps or straw boaters and braces; their women in cloche hats and print dresses, I felt rather the odd one out. A time traveller, perhaps. It wasn’t the fact that I was festooned with twenty-first century camera gear. It was more fundamental than that. You see, I don’t do cosplay.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Deco cars, writing tips, science, geekery…and more.

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3 comments on “Sun, style and heat in the ‘Art Deco Capital of the World’

  1. Fabulous! We loved Napier.

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