Loss of Art Deco champion ‘huge blow’
By Roger Moroney
Robert Bergen McGregor
1940 – 2015
Robert McGregor, Napier’s passionate and devoted champion of Art Deco, has died.
He was 75.
“A huge loss to our community,” was how Napier City Councillor Maxine Boag responded to the news that Mr McGregor had passed away on Tuesday morning at Hawke’s Bay Hospital.
“He was a great advocate for Napier and a trail blazer for the Art Deco Trust.”
His daughter Isobel said Art Deco became his life and he enjoyed every minute of it.
“He was so unassuming,” she said. “And he was a gentle man – a great father.”
He had known his wife-to-be, Helen Angus, (now deceased) since childhood and after years apart met up with her again after she returned from a trip to London and, as Isobel said, “the rest is history”.
They had two children – Isobel and Angus who now lives in London. There was never any doubt the fourth-generation Napierite would devote his enthusiasm and determined nature to seeing the city’s unique architectural styles, generated as a result of the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake, preserved.
There is a family photo of Mr McGregor in 1943 when he was about three years old – at the Tom Parker Fountain on Marine Parade where he would sail his model boats. His brother Euan said even as a boy Robert was interested in style. “He loved architecture and he also liked American cars because their styles were changing every year – he had scrapbooks full of pictures of them.”
He was proud of the brother he said “put his enduring mark on Napier”.
Robert McGregor was born in Napier and attended Central School and Napier Boys’ High School and went on to work as an architectural draughtsman.
It was that role which clearly sparked him into recognising style and heritage in a building.
His years spent as director of the Hawke’s Bay Museum also fuelled his devotion to the unique heritage Napier possessed. There is little doubt his passion for saving buildings under threat back in the late 1970s and early ’80s helped spark what has become a global attraction – the “Art Deco City”.
But he was always modest about his part in creating the Art Deco Trust and putting the city he grew up in and loved on the world map. In interviews he would point toward the late Mary Johnson, Dermot Horne and Graham Spence who also carried the Art Deco banner in the early days when most people simply saw what was around them as just old buildings.
Mr McGregor saw a lot more than that. He once said that as director of the museum he learned the value of heritage tourism. He was never backward in coming forward about the value and distinction of the city’s architectural landscape and during the early ’80s embroiled the media in his battles to create more awareness. He produced a stream of press releases aimed at inflaming public indignation and to sway opinion.
He once remarked that many community leaders thought he was mad and often found himself in confrontation situations with developers who were intent on taking old buildings down.
In 1985 a modest, small-scale Art Deco Trust was formed and in 1987 it was formally incorporated, with Mr McGregor as its first president.
By 1992 the trust had become a full-time operation as the attraction of Art Deco, and the increasingly popular special celebratory weekends grew, and he took on a salaried position as its executive director.
Mr McGregor was also a member of the Cultural Trust between 1979 and 1992.
In 1994 he was elected an honorary associate of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.
His devotion to Art Deco never dimmed and his passion for what his city possessed was well and truly illustrated in a 2003 report which showed the Art Deco Weekend generated about $3.3 million.
By 2010 the trust’s turnover exceeded $1.5 million and more than 30,000 people were turning out for the big weekends while visitor numbers throughout the entire year were on the rise. In 2008 Mr McGregor stepped down from his steering role, but his dedication to deco continued as he became the trust’s heritage consultant. A year later he was presented with a Napier Civic Award which recognised the “meritorious” work he had done.
Art Deco Trust general manager Sally Jackson said staff were stunned and deeply saddened to hear the news.
“We celebrated his 75th birthday with him only a month ago. And he was wonderfully dressed and dancing at the balls during the Winter Art Deco we’ve just had.”
Mr McGregor was also special guest at a function where he was presented with a special plaque commemorating his 30 years of service with the trust.
Mrs Jackson said to all those who worked with him he was a valuable mentor and losing his “guiding influence” was a huge blow.
Former Napier Mayor Barbara Arnott described Mr McGregor as “one man who made a difference “.
She said she admired his tenacity and the way he never stopped working to improve the “fabric” of the city. “Art Deco is Napier’s point of difference and he recognised what it could be both in terms of the aesthetics and the economy.”
Mrs Arnott said without Mr McGregor’s vision and determination Napier would not be enjoying the national and global Art Deco adulation it receives today.
Away from the stylish and historic landscape of the city he loved Mr McGregor enjoyed gardening, travel and exploring local history. He was a firm believer in having a true commitment to his community – once summing that philosophy up by saying “of course when you live in Napier it’s hard not to do so”.
By Roger Moroney