Story: Historic earthquakes

Page 8. Rebuilding Napier

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On 11 March 1931 the government appointed magistrate J. S. Barton and engineer L. B. Campbell as commissioners for Napier. Together with local committees they had the daunting task of organising reconstruction. This included restoring water supplies, replacing sewers, and repairing and inspecting houses before they could be reoccupied. Local survey plans and land titles had been destroyed, so all properties were resurveyed, and interim titles were issued.

Few insurance policies covered earthquakes, and many insurers refused to pay for fire damage that resulted from the quake. In 1931 Parliament had passed the Hawke’s Bay Earthquake Act, which provided loans for local companies and individuals to rebuild their premises. Because of the economic depression, however, the funds granted were far from adequate, and repayment terms were harsh. Much of the money for recovery came from charity, which poured in during the weeks after the quake.

A safer city

Napier was presented with a unique opportunity: the wholesale replacement of its city centre. The city authorities did not want haphazard growth, so a temporary shopping centre, dubbed Tin Town, was built at Clive Square. It was used for several years while the city centre was being rebuilt. Napier’s new town centre boasted many improvements, including wider streets and some of New Zealand’s earliest underground power and telephone lines.

The loss of life caused by the collapse of so many buildings shocked the country. Engineers studied the building damage to identify the most dangerous defects in design and construction. A Buildings Regulations Committee developed guidelines to ensure the new buildings were safer; their recommendations were the forerunner of building codes now used throughout New Zealand.

Architectural influences

Four rival architectural practices joined to share resources and ideas. The buildings of Louis Hay reflected the designs of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Natusch & Sons’ buildings were simple in style, often using arched windows, and Finch & Westerholm produced many Spanish mission style buildings. Most popular was the art deco style of the time, which emphasised spare, clean lines and geometric motifs. E. A. Williams designed some of Napier’s most striking art deco buildings. Their austere modernistic design contrasted sharply with the ornate edifices that had caused so many deaths. Many of these 1930s buildings have since been restored, and are now major attractions.

In November 1932, Hastings celebrated its reconstruction, and in January 1933, almost two years after the earthquake, during the New Napier Carnival, Napier was declared officially ‘reborn’.

An altered landscape

Shortly after the earthquake, hundreds of people had made their way to the beach, seeking a safe haven from crumbling buildings. There they found that the sea had retreated far from the shoreline, and many feared a tsunami.

The sea had gone out – for good. The Napier earthquake had been caused by movement along a fault buried deep beneath the region. When it moved, an area above the fault, about 90 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide, domed upward. The land and sea floor were raised by as much as 2.7 metres.

Napier had extensive areas of wetlands, including Ahuriri Lagoon, popular for fishing and recreation. As the land rose, sea water drained from the lagoon, gifting Napier with more than 2,000 hectares of new land. Drains were later put in and eventually rain flushed the sea salt from the soil. The former lagoon became productive land, and the site of Hawke’s Bay airport. Along Napier’s Marine Parade debris from landslides and demolished buildings was placed on the newly upraised foreshore and covered with soil to create a broad garden esplanade.

How to cite this page:

Eileen McSaveney, 'Historic earthquakes - Rebuilding Napier', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 May 2024)

Story by Eileen McSaveney, published 12 Jun 2006, reviewed & revised 28 Mar 2011, updated 1 Nov 2017