Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

New Zealand Day 7: Napier, Vintage Car Tour

Posted by Lisa Hill on May 12, 2019

Today we enjoyed a most informative vintage car tour, with John from the Art Deco Trust.  The car is a beautifully maintained Packard Six, described apparently as the Rolls Royce of America.  Certainly it’s a very comfortable way to cruise around Napier to see the sights.

The tour complemented our walking tour nicely.  As you could see from yesterday’s post, walking is better for photographing the upper stories of the Art Deco buildings, though you need to be on the opposite side of the road to get the best shots.  But from the windows of the car we could see details of Art Deco motifs and leadlight windows, and John’s commentary told us all kinds of interesting details about the buildings.

The tour begins with a short video that explains the history of Napier and its rebuilding after the 1931 earthquake.  The guide who introduced it started off by telling us about her personal experience with a quake magnitude of 5.2 and how her anxiety grew over the 20 seconds so that just as she was about to get out of her warm bed to drop, cover and hold, it stopped.  So that was a vivid illustration of how terrifying the 1931 quake must have been.  It lasted for two-and-a-half minutes, and it not only caused the destruction we’ve heard about, it also completely reshaped the land….

Prior to the quake, Napier was a very small town, hemmed in by the absence of any flat land.  The town was needed as a port on this side of the North Island, but there was a massive lagoon to its west, and swampland to the south.  There just wasn’t anywhere to expand.  But when the plates crashed together, they pushed the land up by two-and-a-half metres, obliterating the lagoon and the swamp.  So along with the tragedy came the opportunity for the town to grow, and under the leadership of a two-man commission rebuilding began in an orderly way, replacing the Victorian buildings with their perilous ornamentation and brickwork vulnerable to collapse with the prevailing architectural style: Art Deco in reinforced concrete.  The smooth facades and decorations mean that the buildings are sturdier, and with all the electricity and phone poles underground, there is less risk of residents being hit by falling objects.

From the CBD, John drove us up a narrow winding road into the hills overlooking the city.  These houses largely survived the quake, so there are charming Victoria era houses, with carved wooden fretwork replacing the iron lacework that you see on Melbourne houses of the same era. There wasn’t really anywhere to stop so I don’t have photos—when I am more confident about the stability of the internet I’ll Google to see what I can find, but I do have a photo from the lookout over the port.

On the left you can see vast quantities of (plantation) timber awaiting shipment to China, and on the right you are looking at the land which rose up after the quake.  All the land you can see, up to the edge of the mountains in the far distance, was where the lagoon was.

After the lookout we stopped at the eccentric National Tobacco Company building.  The company was owned by a prominent businessman and philanthropist, but he preferred art nouveau motifs to art deco.  Since he was the one with the money, he got the design he wanted.  John said that it takes two men to hold the bronze lamps when the bulbs need replacing.

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From there we drove through some postwar housing that puts our Melbourne postwar housing to shame.  Napier also had a critical shortage of building materials, but their solution was to put up a timber frame, cover it with chicken  wire, and then use plaster!  They paint these houses in the typical 1930s sage green, pale blue and dusky pinks, and add decorative Art Deco elements, and apparently they are highly valued and sell for a premium price.  I don’t think anyone would pay a premium price for Melbourne’s 1950s suburban housing: everyone these days alters them just as we have. Here’s a picture through the window of the Packard.

We went back to the Ajuna Cafe again for lunch because it is excellent.  They have a really appealing menu, the service is friendly and prompt and they serve delicious fresh juices and you can have a glass of wine or a beer if you like.  After that we visited the Napier Museum, but I’ll do that as a separate post because I’ll upload this one now while the internet access is behaving itself.

3 Responses to “New Zealand Day 7: Napier, Vintage Car Tour”

  1. Great post – thanks Lisa. I love the creativity of that post-war building.

    • Lisa Hill said

      They’re very attractive!

      • Lisa Hill said

        BTW It might just be that we haven’t been to the places where they are, but we haven’t seen any McMansions, anywhere. I’ve heard somewhere that Australian houses are among the largest in the world, so maybe Kiwis haven’t caught that disease yet.
        (I don’t understand why anyone would want to do all that extra housework….)

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