ADSUK member Craig Stephen discovers an Art Deco oasis smack bang in rural New Zealand. Photos by Craig.
In a former goldfield region in the South Island, among tussock grasslands, rocky outcrops and traditional rural townships, lies an unlikely myriad of Art Deco buildings. Welcome to Ranfurly in the province of Otago, a small town that even has an annual festival celebrating the style, or at least it did pre-COVID.
Like Napier, Ranfurly’s love of Deco began in the early 1930s. Still, unlike its North Island coastal cousin, it was a series of suspicious fires rather than an earthquake that led to substantial rebuilding that included a new hotel and town hall.
Ranfurly has more than 40 buildings that could be considered Art Deco, not an inconsiderate number in a village of about 700 people, and most certainly an anomaly for an elevated, inland agricultural district. The district, Maniototo, like most of rural New Zealand, was less concerned with the actual look of a property and more about its functionality. Local architects H McDowell Smith and builder JM Mitchell & Sons were tasked with this rebuild and were infused with the styles of the time, what we now call ‘Streamline’ or ‘Moderne’.
Ranfurly calls itself the rural Art Deco town. Its most famous and photographed building is the Centennial Milk Bar next to the former railway station, now home to the village i-Site visitor information centre.
Despite its 1930s look, the Centennial wasn’t completed until 1948 – architects continued to use the Art Deco style in Ranfurly until the 1950s – and is so named because it opened in Otago’s centennial year. In its heyday, the bar served lunch and refreshments to travellers on the trains and railcars as they passed through.
It was also a busy hub for the community, particularly after school or on sports days, serving ice creams and drinks. The Weir family owned the business for many years and sold it in 1970. It struggled as a business after the railcar service stopped in 1976 and the population continued declining, finally closing in 1999.
The derelict building was destined to be raised to the ground by the local fire brigade for practice, but following a community campaign, it was saved and bought up by the Central Otago District Council in 2000.
It is now a gallery and shop selling retro gifts and artefacts. Ironically, it survived what the regional fire service described as a suspicious fire in an adjacent annexe in January 2014.
Almost diagonally opposite the Centennial, on Ranfurly’s modest main drag, is the Ranfurly Hotel, which was completed in July 1934. It is a striking building with pastel colours and contains some touches of Art Deco inside. During construction, earthquake-strengthening work was included to reflect by-laws introduced after the Hawke’s Bay shake, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake which destroyed Napier and Hawke in 1930, killing more than 250 people.
It survives on contractors staying during the week and locals dining and drinking in the public bar and lounge at the weekends. The CD jukebox in the dining room is unlikely to be a survivor of the rebuilt 1930s hotel.
Murals reflecting the era adorn a number of the buildings along the main street.
One building that was created before the fires changed the township is the Fenton Library (1924). A modest brick building complimented by a yellow pastel shade around the top and vertical edges, it now incongruently fronts the local campsite and is home to a local radio station. Passing by on an early morning walk, I spotted the DJ from the outside preparing for his next show.
In the 1950s, there seemed to be a mini-revival in Art Deco buildings with an auto repair shop, also on the main street, being constructed. Its classic lines and form make it an appealing example of Deco-style architecture. In 1950 The Practice, as in dental, was built on Northland Street in the earlier geometric Art Deco style, which a recent redecoration has illuminated. It is now a boutique gift gallery and coffee shop. The original dental practice plaque is still in place at the entrance.
Among the other notable structures in Ranfurly are the local offices of the Central Otago District Council (1935) and the Mayola Guest House (1928), renovated to reflect Ranfurly’s distinctive architectural appeal.
And finally, to add a human touch to this article, on the corner opposite the Centennial is one of my favourite statues on the South Island, that of John Turnbull Thomson. I’m drawn to it partly for the statue itself, thanks to the huge importance of this 19th-century visionary. As the Chief Surveyor of Otago, he virtually shaped Central and North Otago.
Many names in the area can be attributed to Thomson’s Northumbrian background and are often in the form of a Northumbrian dialectic name for an animal, including Ranfurly which he originally named Eweburn. Then there’s the Pigroot, the Kyeburn (cow), Gimmerburn (hogget), Stotburn (steer), and Wedderburn (wether, castrated sheep). These settlements were all named by Thomson, hence the reason that occasionally the area is referred to as Thomson’s Barnyard.
The area around Ranfurly contains some other examples of Art Deco, such as the Blacks Hotel in Ophir, while Naseby, an important township during the gold rush of the 1860s, contains many buildings preserved from that time and has something of the air of a working museum.
For any Art Deco enthusiast touring the south island, Ranfurly is a must-visit. It lies 68 miles or 140 Km north of Dunedin. Be sure to spend a little money in the town as all that preservation does not come cheap. Of course NZ’s balmier climes means that all that concrete suffers less than if it were on the seaside back in Blighty; but loving is spending.
Our editor writes: disaster often heralds a rebuilding project which relaunches a place using a coherent style. There are many historic examples such as the Grand Place in Brussels, after bombardment by Louis XIV. Do you know of other places that suffered a disaster and were then rebuilt in Art Deco? Apart from the NZ examples mentioned in this article. If so tell us by email
[AWB1]Philip, were you planning to publish this speedily? If so this competition could be mentioned in the newsletter. What do you think.
1 thought on “A rural Art Deco township in New Zealand”
I have no idea how I missed this when I lived in New Zealand! I’ll put it high on the list for my next visit!