The newly restored Napier War Memorial was officially reopened to the public and rededicated by Mayor Kirsten Wise on Sunday 6 August.
Amongst the ceremony’s speeches Deputy Mayor Annette Brosnan said the restoration was “A long road, a path not to be walked again”. When Commander Fiona Jameson, Commanding Officer of HMNZS Te Kaha, noted that war memorials were made to remind people to not “Repeat decisions that led to tragic results”, I wondered how much she knew about the prolonged battle that had led up to the rededication.
[I went into depth on the desecration of the War Memorial and prolonged public battle to get it restored for Baybuzz in 2018. You can read the full story here, or a quick catch up concluding this piece.]
The new memorial site looks much like a mirror image of the original with water feature and eternal flame between a covered viewing pathway and the Roll of Honor plaques affixed to the facility’s outer wall.
Its curves, light, shade and openness are almost an architectural opposite to the boxy brutalism of Dalton and Jack’s cubic commercial conference addition at the other end of the Marine Parade façade where the 1957 memorial was.
Allan Rhodes of the War Memorial Recovery Group says Napier War Memorial “belongs to the people of Napier. It doesn’t belong to the council, or me, or any of us. It belongs to the community, and the community will ultimately decide whether they like this reopened memorial”.
Some will be dubious of the white pillars that act almost as a wall separating the memorial and the main conference centre entrance and forecourt. Others will never be happy, as the flame and plaques weren’t returned to their 90s refit location inside the building’s lobby. An extended reception desk now occupies the space – hardly a feature that required wholesale destruction of the sacred site.
I spoke to Mayor Kirsten Wise at the rededication and broached the subject that this whole thing never needed have happened.
“I think everyone will acknowledge it’s unfortunate that we had to do a restoration because the loss of the elements and War Memorial, as you say, never should have happened. But that’s why it was so important to me and so many others here today to make sure we took the time to put it back and put it back right and I know the length of time it’s taken has been frustrating for many people, but to be respectful of the original memorial, to be respectful of Guy Natusch as the original architect was, to me, of primary importance and I think we’ve achieved that,” said Mayor Wise.
Indeed, the building’s original main room has been renamed the ‘Natusch Ballroom’ in his memory.
I was fortunate to meet Guy Natusch (then in his late 90s) twice during the time NCC began to reconsider its removal of the memorial. NCC had included him in discussions, planning and debates, but even he was starting to feel despondent at the protracted proceedings and felt some key aspects, including Māori motifs, were being ignored.
Selwyn Hawthorn, also of the Recovery Group, said several key figures early on told him “War Memorials are about memory, not monument”.
Given the last surviving WW2 veterans are now in their late 90s, how do we honour their memories once they are gone without monuments like Napier’s War Memorial to remind us, as Commander Jameson said, not to “Repeat decisions that led to tragic results”?
And how did removing sacred elements from a facility named “War Memorial” not raise immediate red flags for Napier City councillors back in 2016?
Here’s a brief recounting.
Napier’s War Memorial on Marine Parade, designed by renowned local architect Guy Natusch, opened in 1957. Donations from the people of Napier funded its construction totalling £15,000 (upwards of $150,000 today).
Its Eternal Flame and marble Roll of Honour plaques dedicated to locals lost in World War Two were originally displayed on the outside of the building.
Renovations in the early 90s saw the Eternal Flame and expanded Roll of Honour (now including First World War, Korea, Vietnam, and other modern conflicts) move inside the entranceway to the newly named ‘War Memorial Centre’.
It remained so for another 20 years until at a Napier City Council meeting on April 6, 2016 the motion was moveed: “That the War Memorial feature of the existing War Memorial Conference Centre be relocated to Memorial Square”.
The city’s elected representatives unanimously agreed and Napier War Memorial was no more.
Napier ratepayers gave no mandate for this. No one had asked their local councillor for the change. Intent on chasing conference dollars NCC management claimed the “War Memorial” name could cause confusion and lose customers for hosting international conferences and gatherings.
It was a purely commercial recommendation from council management that elected councillors swallowed hook, line and sinker.
“Moved. Put. Voted. Done. Gone. Breathtaking. Disgraceful.” wrote Les Hewett, President of Hastings’ Royal New Zealand Air Force Association at the time.
The memorial-less “Napier Conference Centre” reopened in 2017, but the condition and whereabouts of the Eternal Flame and Roll of Honour became a big issue.
A council besieged
Hundreds of online comments, a War Memorial Recovery Group Facebook group, letters, and texts to local media to restore the War Memorial flooded in, but Council CEO at the time Wayne Jack and his Mayor Bill Dalton dug in, defending their decision and refusing to retreat. Restoration “was not on the list of options” presented by NCC management to yet another public-excluded council working group at the time.
NCC eventually provided a ‘proof of life’ photo of what they claimed was the Eternal Flame, but the picture of a gas burner sheltered by a rubbish bin lid in the council depot was a far cry from the noble glass, copper and marble mount that had housed it for the last 20 years.
A public meeting was held at Napier’s MTG in August 2017. At it Mayor Dalton said “the simple answer” was the Eternal Flame and Rolls of Honour could not return.
In 2018 cracks began to appear in NCC’s defences. Dalton and Jack’s administration had been fighting losing battles on multiple fronts over the War Memorial, Aquatic Centre and city water infrastructure when a War Memorial resistance began to rise amongst their ranks and then-councillor Kirsten Wise spoke out in the local paper:
“At the time we voted to rename our War Memorial Centre we truly did not understand the legal and, more importantly, the moral obligation we had to our community.” The unanimous council vote was “made in good faith by all councillors based on the information presented to us at the time.” HB Today 9 April 2018
At the 2019 local body election Councillor Wise swept into the mayoral chair and many of her fellow councillors who voted in favour of the War Memorial Name, Eternal Flame and Roll of Honour’s removal were re-elected.
The new administration oversaw many changes, including the departure of CEO Jack and many of his lieutenants who had been instrumental in the War Memorial’s removal and stonewalling its return.
There was yet more consultation, but progress in righting the wrongs was still slow. Many felt it took too long.
Sadly, Guy Natusch died, aged 99, before he could see the memorial reinstated.