WORDS Donna Blaber First published in Renovate magazine
Art Deco homes from the 1930s are found throughout New Zealand from small country towns like Ranfurly to big city suburbs, but nowhere are they found as abundantly as the sunny seaside city of Napier.
Napier is a place to reminisce of childhood and golden summers past. The sunken gardens blossom with the memories of many a marriage proposal and the sun-warmed smoothness of Pania of the Reef, immortalised in bronze upon her rock, soaks up the beat that radiates from the Art Deco Sound Shell stage along the seaward Colonnade. This, like many of the town’s exquisitely restored Deco facades, comes to life every February when Napier hosts its renowned Art Deco Weekend. It’s a time when locals polish their vintage cars, pull out their best ‘30s clothes, and take part in bubbly breakfasts, celebrity tea parties, and glitzy costume and coiffure competitions.
Of course, none of this would be happening had the tragic events of 1931 not occurred, when much of Napier was destroyed in an earthquake that remains New Zealand’s worst natural disaster. The town was subsequently redesigned in the modern style of the time; hence the predominance of the Art Deco look, although some architects also drew inspiration from the Californian city of Santa Barbara and its fashionable adobe Spanish Mission architecture.
Today, Napier is a haven for design buffs, a place where you can step back in time, surrounded by the zigzags, sunbursts, and fountains of a bygone era. Over the past 20 years, building frontages throughout the city have progressively embraced their heritage, and been given new life in attractive and striking colour schemes, earning the city a worldwide reputation. Must-sees for visitors include the richly decorated National Tobacco Company building in Ahuriri, the streamlined exterior of the Ranui Flats on Marine Parade, Taradale’s McDeco McDee’s, plus the eye-catching Art Deco suburb of Marewa.
Like every home with a history, Art Deco homes come with their fair share of problems. However, owners of Deco houses tend to buy them for their unique style, rather than their performance ratings. Renovating an Art Deco home can be a challenge, mostly due to issues relating to water tightness. Cracks in stucco cladding, a lack of protection at window heads, a sub-standard internal gutter size, an absence of eaves, not to mention their low pitched or flat roofs and parapet walls, all play their part in the problem. However, on a more positive note a great many Art Deco homes currently for sale have already undergone significant renovation work due to their advanced age.
Nevertheless, ceiling insulation remains an issue. Retrofitting under a flat or low pitched roof is a difficult task, so many still have little or no insulation.
Despite this, Art Deco houses are recognised for their unique character and heritage, and many local authorities have planning requirements in place to protect their special charms. In order to maintain Art Deco street appeal, many owners choose to make extensions and modifications at the rear of their properties rather than at the front. Common modifications include changes to improve weather tightness such as replacing timber sashes with aluminium framed windows (although timber is the preferred replacement material for heritage lovers), and making roof alterations.
Fortunately, although weather tightness has been a problem for these homes, the use of native timbers and good underfloor clearance and ventilation means that some elements of these homes have aged very well.
Before undertaking any renovation work, BRANZ recommend that Art Deco buildings should be carefully assessed by a structural engineer. Health hazards such as asbestos sheeting which was sometimes used as stucco, should also be tested.