Napier Art Deco historic precinct

Photo in the Public Domain.

Napier Art Deco historic precinct is part of the Tentative list of New Zealand in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

Napier Art Deco historic precinct in the city of Napier on the North Island is one of the best preserved Art Deco districts in the world, and provides a unique Southern Hemisphere version of the style. Napier was devastated by an earthquake in 1931, and the central business district was rebuilt in the Art Deco style over the next decade. The one and two story buildings were decorated with ornamentation prevalent in Art Deco design, such as sunbursts and ziggurats, while also incorporating Maori designs.

Map of Napier Art Deco historic precinct

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The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.

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Carlo Sarion

Philippines | New Zealand - 10-Jul-20 -

Napier Art Deco historic precinct (T) by Carlo Sarion

The lifting of restrictions following months of lockdown allowed me to visit Napier in July 2020. According to its UNESCO WHS webpage, Napier's cityscape is the local government's response to the catastrophic 1931 earthquake that leveled most of the city. Art deco was adopted as the city's architectural style (given the time period), with most buildings constructed using reinforced concrete and possessing only one or two storeys. This is not surprising, however, as they want to prevent the same level of damages they experienced in the 1931 earthquake. The Napier City Council bills the city as the world's art deco capital. In addition, Napier holds the annual Art Deco festival every February to commemorate the historical and cultural significance of the city.

My friend and I drove down to Napier during a relatively busy Saturday afternoon, but it only took us 5 hours to get there from Auckland. Napier's art deco historic center is compact and could easily be visited in a day. Unfortunately, I wouldn't say that I got the most out of my visit since my friend had a different itinerary in mind. I was able, however, to visit the main buildings that arguably best represent the city's architecture, such as the Masonic Hotel, the Daily Telegraph Building, the Criterion Hotel, the Public Trust Office and the Central Hotel. Likewise, strolling along Tennyson, Emerson and Dickens streets would give any fan of art deco a healthy dose of this beautiful architectural style. It is notable that many of the city's art deco buildings also contain Maori and even Egyptian art. Although individual buildings exhibit simplicity and fewer ornamentation, the total ensemble elicits aesthetic harmony and is indeed refreshing to the eyes.

The report written by Ian Lochhead in August 2011 of the city's OUV provides an easy to read but highly informative assessment of Napier's significance and value as an art deco city:

  • The city possesses a high level of authenticity - a significant majority of the buildings constructed after the 1931 earthquake still stand.
  • The city, however, has a compromised level of integrity - this is particularly true, especially since some reconstructions made to accommodate commercial establishments lessened the character of the buildings (the major issue I had with Macau). Modern buildings and car parks also spoil the homogeneity of the city's urbanscape.
  • It will not be able to compete with the volume and size of the art deco structures of Miami.
  • The author thought that the site does not stand out enough to satisfy criteria 2, 4 and 6.   

Given the above assessments, the city could not be endorsed for inscription in the UNESCO WHS list. Indeed, I thought that the city is too modest to merit an inscription. But while Napier does not have the OUV based on this assessment, I still think that it still an important historical and architectural site in New Zealand. It's a popular tourist site in the country anyway.

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Full Name
Napier Art Deco historic precinct
New Zealand
Human activity - Urban planning
2007 Added to Tentative List

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Napier Art Deco historic precinct: Napier (T)
WHS 1997-2024