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Living monument to the Art Deco age

The Daily Telegraph Building in Napier, which uses angular geometric patterns as ornament.

-- Art Deco originated in Europe in the early 20th century. It became widely known following the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, from which it derived its name.

-- Typically using streamlined geometric shapes, bright colors and decorative motifs, Art Deco reflected a new age of optimism and confidence characterized by improving technology.

-- Art Deco was popularized in the U.S. during the post-depression building boom of the 1930s, most dramatically by skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.

-- Florida's Miami Beach, which was heavily promoted as a tourist resort for the wealthy in the 1930s, contains the world's greatest concentration of Art Deco buildings.

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NAPIER, New Zealand (CNN) -- A provincial city on New Zealand's North Island, Napier is a world away from the design centers of Europe and North America.

Yet the small town on the shores of the South Pacific has become a magnet for tourists intrigued by how it became one of the world's best examples of Art Deco architecture -- the cutting edge style of the 1920s and 1930s.

The story of Napier's transformation begins in 1931 when it was devastated by an earthquake. In just 150 seconds the center of the city, built mostly of brick and wood, was destroyed with the loss of 258 lives.

New Zealand at the time was in the grip of a global financial depression, triggered by the Wall Street Crash of two years earlier.

When the city's residents turned their energies to reconstruction there were three major considerations: safety, economy and modernism.

"The people of Napier wanted a new modern city, they didn't want to replace the old city with another city," Robert McGregor of the Art Deco Trust told CNN.

"Many of the buildings had caused deaths and injuries because ornamental features had fallen off. So they wanted a clean-lined, simple city that suited the Art Deco style.

"They also wanted a city that was strong, so reinforced concrete was the material of choice. And they wanted a city that could be built cheaply because it was in the depths of the Great Depression."

By the time rebuilding began, the worst of the financial crisis was over and Napier's reconstruction in the Art Deco style became an expression of a newfound optimism.

"People were sure that science, education, technology and mass production were going to solve their problems," said McGregor.

"There was going to be no more poverty, no more ignorance, no more disease. Art Deco reflected that confidence, vigor and optimism by using symbols of progress, speed and power."

Within a few city blocks Napier has 140 Art Deco structures, interspersed with surviving examples of pre-earthquake classical architecture, but the city center is merely the hub of a wider architectural renaissance.

Nearby Marewa, a residential area created when the earthquake pushed tidal swampland above sea level, is known as the "Art Deco Suburb."

It consists of low buildings with smooth stucco walls, flat roofs, curved corners and simple motifs.

The neighboring town of Hastings meanwhile opted to re-build with a "Spanish Mission" theme, a close architectural cousin of Art Deco that was popularized in California.

"There has been a suggestion that the rebuilding of Napier in a modern style pushes New Zealanders into a greater acceptance of modernism than you would find in many other countries, even though we were quite isolated in those days," McGregor explained.

"In any New Zealand town, even small country towns, you will find at least one Art Deco house. These were not built by intellectuals using an avant-garde architect as you might have found in the United States. These were built by builders using handbooks for young married couples who didn't have any intellectual pretensions at all."

That lack of pretension however perhaps also contributed to a lack of local appreciation of Napier's heritage. But when a wave of redevelopment threatened the future of the city's Art Deco buildings in the early 1980s a group of concerned citizens decided to take action.

In 1987 the Art Deco Trust was created, dedicated to the preservation of the city's architecture and its promotion as a focus for regional tourism.

"It wasn't until the 1980s when we lost several really good buildings to another building boom that we woke up to the value of what we had," said McGregor.

"The fact that we were unique and that there was a huge opportunity for Napier to not only save some important heritage but to benefit economically from tourism."

The steadily growing numbers of visitors -- many of them young, educated and affluent -- have justified the Trust's faith in the power of tourism.

As well as economic benefits, tourism has also instilled civic pride among citizens proud that their community is now globally recognized as the "Art Deco City."

"The Trust's attitude had been to always been to save the buildings through tourism because nobody took us seriously when we said that these concrete boxes were important," said McGregor.

"We knew that we had to bring in overseas tourists taking photos of them and admiring them before anybody would believe us."

-- CNN's Andrea Armsden contributed to this report.

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