A 1931 earthquake gave Napier a fresh start. With its downtown destroyed and 162 lives lost, Napier embraced Art Deco as the style for its renewal. It was a great time to put up new buildings, as the pleasant storefronts on Napier show today. Pity the places such as Sao Paolo that had boom construction years in the 1970s and now are full of tall box office buildings.
My husband and I stayed at Art Deco Backpackers while using Napier as a stopover en route to Wellington, New Zealand. The room had lovely details like a little foyer and a bathroom that was not the least bit cramped. It seemed more like a place for the glamorous detective-and-heiress couple from the 1930s “Thin Man” movies, Nick and Nora Charles, than for David and me. Still, we tossed our backpacks and David’s enormous duffel into the room’s walk-in closet and settled in. In the morning, we took up the budget hotel’s offer of free coffee and tea in the morning and enjoyed them on the balcony.
Napier today makes the most of its collection of buildings topped with lightning flashes, suns, Egyptian images and other designs associate with Art Deco. It has developed a lively tourism business based on a few streets of Art Deco buildings. Napier holds festivals to entice visitors who will fill its hotels and restaurants.
Still, the official Art Deco Napier brochure has to concede that the town is not exactly unique. “Nowhere else in the world is there a town or city built entirely in the styles of the early thirties-unless it is nearby Hasting, which suffered almost as badly in the earthquake” of 1931, the guide says.
Hastings is about 11 miles from Napier.
Napier also has Spanish Mission Style buildings along with its Art Deco ones. Its architects were adapting a style kicked off in the Arab kingdoms, refined through Spain’s Christian centuries and then smoothed out with adaptations to the materials available in the Americas. It’s one of the most pleasing styles around. Why not use it in this town on the other side of the world?
Less successful were attempts to add Mayan details to the Art Deco buildings.
David and I have visited the Mayan world three times since 2004 and nothing about the “Mayan” ferns on Napier buildings reminded us things seen at Tikal, Tulum or Palenque. The brochure on Napier’s Art Deco history hits the mark when it says: “..as in other countries, architects tended to use pattern books from overseas rather than look to their own indigenous flora, fauna and art.”
That seems to be universal. When David and I visited India in 2003, we saw shops in the south of India touting goods from northern Rajasthan. In the north, we saw shops promoting products from Kerala in the south. I saw a restaurant near the Georgia coast offering food based on recipes from California’s Napa Valley, and I’d bet that people in Napa might be enticed by a restaurant offering the creamy sauces and fresh seafood of coastal Georgia and the Carolinas.
We all want something from somewhere else, and thank God for that. That drive has pushed man to cross seas and mountains for something new to see, to eat, to buy and sell.