A Tragic Solution, The Napier Earthquake

A  Tragic Solution, The Napier Earthquake

Napier, New Zealand was in trouble.  It was a growing port that was running out of land. It was losing out to Hastings, a bit inland because it did not have the land for additional industrial and residential growth.  Napier has a fishing fleet but also exports timber, fruit and wine.  In February 1931 its land problem was solved in a tragic way.  An earthquake occurred at the collision of the Australian and Pacific plates.  One plate sled under another, raising the land from the sea.  It was a subduction quake.  The lagoon in Napier ended up high and dry stranding boats and adding the stench of rotting fish to the smells of dust and disaster.  But it also added a lot of land.  The Customs and Harbor Master’s house remained unharmed, high, dry, and a considerable distance from the water.   The map below shows how the landscape was changed by that temblor.

The earthquake felled the brick buildings in the town (See the post on the Anglican Cathedral) but the wooden Victorian buildings survived because they were flexible swayed with the quake.  But Following the earthquake a fire started in a chemist’s shop (drug store) when a Bunsen burner that was being used to melt wax to seal prescription bottles overturned and set the shop on fire.  All the water mains were broken and the fire got out of control and consumed many of the wooden buildings.  One block of 6 buildings in town survived, now called the six sisters.  The Wesleyan (Methodist) Church in town also survived as did wooden buildings on the outskirts of town.


The local museum and Art Deco Center, across the street from each other, do an excellent job of interpreting the history of the quake and the rebirth of the town.  The museum is a building just a little over a decade old that incorporates some older buildings.  It looks modern and deco at the same time.

The earthquake may have saved Napier.  The town suddenly had room to grow.  A new port was built and an industrial area grew where the old lagoon had harbored ships and boats.  The beach was widened so between the Marine Parade, the beachside road, and the sea there was considerable space to put recreational facilities which have only recently been fully developed.  These include sunken gardens, floral clock, fountains, basketball courts, statues, wading pools, a visitor’s center, an Oceanside spa, the National Aquarium, space for a weekend market, a band shell and a skateboard park.

The town itself rebuilt using what was, at the time, an inexpensive technique that could better withstand future quakes — poured reinforced concrete.  And since it was all rebuilt in a period of two or three years there was a consistent style, Art Deco.  This is not Chrysler Building Deco.  It’s practical and functional, but still pleasing, with decorative work in the concrete and a space for color.

This disaster has not only made Napier a working industrial as well as seaport town but also a place that attracts tourists and cruise ships because of its Art Deco style.  In another post I’ll show you pictures from the deco downtown, but to finish off this post here are six shots of the National Tobacco Company Building.  It is not downtown, but rather in the new port area.  The owner liked the Deco idea but asked that some Art Nouveau touches.  The building is a nice mix.  It was later sold to Rothman’s Tobacco which repainted it, again and again.  When the new owners removed 17 layers of paint they discovered the delicate work that had been glopped over and jade tiles on part of the building front.

The see more Napier Deco click on this line.

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