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Art Deco, Kiwi Style

Sunday, October 12, 2003

WHAT: The art deco capital of New Zealand.

WHERE: Napier, on the east coast of North Island.

WHY GO: Because New Zealand actually has an art deco capital.

It all started with what was, in hindsight, a well-timed earthquake.

When the small Pacific town of Napier was leveled in 1931, its residents were forced to redesign the entire city. They turned to the prevailing style of the day: art deco. In addition to its jazzy form, deco had plenty of function, as it was relatively cheap and deemphasized the decorative iron work and verandas that the '31 earthquake destroyed.

Today, with ziggurats, zigzags and sunburst designs dancing across its white concrete buildings, Napier is like a trip back to the Roaring Twenties. That makes sense, considering Napier architects J.A. Louis Hay and E.A. Williams took their cue from American icon Louis Sullivan. Indeed, only one or two downtown buildings would seem out of place in Miami's deco-rich South Beach.

With so much vivid architecture on display, one must decide how best to view it. And when deciding between a group tour and a solo walk is the hardest decision of the day, things are looking up, which is what you'll be doing either way. The two- and three-story buildings provide many stop-and-stare moments. (Rest assured, the local drivers are used to tourists standing in the middle of streets to get "that perfect shot." Most even slow down.)

Unless your every step must be an autonomous one, an Art Deco Trust guided tour is the better choice. The one-hour morning walk (about $4.75 U.S.) will suffice for most, but the more relaxed, two-hour afternoon affair (about $7) is best for anyone remotely interested in architecture. Our guide, Margot, an Austrian import, was friendly and well-versed in architecture -- a good thing, as most of the 10 tourgoers looked unfamiliar with both "art" and "deco."

While I've always admired art deco, I learned more about its origin as a reflection of the machine age. Accordingly, we saw many examples of the deco themes of speed, power and progress. And, in a New Zealand spin on the style, some buildings incorporate Maori designs. The tour was almost too educational: I learned that my hotel, the Criterion Art Deco Backpackers, actually was built in the Spanish Mission style. I felt duped but resisted the urge to find another hotel.

Naturally, the tour ends at the Art Deco Gift Shop, run by the Art Deco Trust (which also sponsors the city's annual Art Deco Weekend in February). The group was formed in 1985 when a few savvy residents realized Napier's buildings were unique and needed protecting. Today, a volunteer army of 120 deco do-gooders runs the trust.

"The members feel a responsibility to protect and conserve the heritage of art deco. We feel that we have one of the best, if not the best, concentrations of deco architecture in the world," says Peter Mooney, the trust's marketing manager.

Napier even boasts its own art deco ambassador, Bertie. If you see a chap wearing a pin-striped blazer, Oxford bags and a boater, that's him. As one of the trust's few paid staffers, John Cocking's job is to walk around town as Bertie, greeting tourists with a trademark "What-ho." Cocking also operates Deco Affair Tours, which parades tourists through town in a 1934 Buick Straight Eight. Visitors are encouraged to borrow from Cocking's eBay-enhanced deco-era wardrobe for either the 30-minute "Jolly Jaunt" (about $11.80 per person) or the hour-long "Deco Dawdle" (about $24 per person).

In addition to sleeping art deco (all right, Spanish Mission), one can also eat and drink it at Mossy's Art Deco Cafe. I was curious what art deco food would look like, and my waitress at least pretended she hadn't heard that joke five times that night. While I was dismayed that there were no zucchini ziggurats on my plate, the lamb in port and blackberry gravy was a delight. And Mossy's wine list might be better than its menu, as the surrounding Hawke's Bay region has some of New Zealand's best vineyards.

While the Kiwi combo of lamb and wine reminds visitors they're in New Zealand, Mossy's deco interior confirms that in Napier, it's all about the architecture.

-- Jonathan Bloom

Napier is about 200 miles north of Wellington. Info on lodging and restaurants: 011-64-6-834-1911, on art deco tours: 011-64-6-835-0022,

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