The story of these gardens began with the need to keep the sea from over-topping the beach and running down into the town.
A permanent sea wall was built in 1887-88 to replace an unsatisfactory wooden structure. The 'new' wall is still there - the low round-topped wall dividing the gardens from the Marine Parade footpath and roadway. Before the 1931 earthquake, the shingle beach came right up to this wall.
The tectonic plate movement which caused the earthquake raised the beachfront by two metres, resulting in a greatly enlarged area of shingle above high tide level.
Appointed Government Commissioner to oversee Napier's restoration following the destructive earthquake, J S Barton asked Charles Corner, the superintendent of the city's parks and reserves, if rubble from downtown's shattered buildings could be used in beach reclamation. When Corner replied that it could, the commissioner said: "Get on with the job. If I am not satisfied, I will let you know." He must have be satisfied, because the stretch of beach from the Ocean Spa swimming complex to the Marine Parade children's playground south of Marineland was levelled using horse-drawn scoops and the rubble unloaded there covered with clay and soil.
Promoters of Napier as a seaside resort had a long-held vision for a European-style line of 'promenade gardens'. The way was now open to realise of these dreams. Although it was the time of the Great Depression and money was scarce, Government subsidised work relief provided labour for the venture.
Retaining walls along the beach enabled the gardens and lawns to occupy a long raised terrace that ran south to the Soundshell.
In 1936, a substantial concrete sea wall with a walkway on the top was built from the Soundshell south to Raffles Street. The beach build-up can be best seen by standing alongside the 'Tui' anchor, mounted on the Rotary Pathway near the Sunken Garden. In 1938, a flight of eleven concrete steps linked the walkway to the beach.
Originally the gardens were a long expanse of unbroken lawn, stretching from a children's playground beside a swimming pool at the foot of Bluff Hill south to the skating rink site. The Kirk Sundial was the first feature to grace the gardens. It was donated by the mayor Gisborne and designed by Louis Hay.
The Thirty Thousand Club was formed in 1913 to promote the population of Napier up to 30,000. Over 62 years, this group of volunteers ran promotional events, raised funds and financially supported improvements to the township. They played an important role in the development of the Soundshell, Skating Ring and Colonnade (later known as the Veronica Sun Bay). A Thirty Thousand Club member, Tom Parker donated the Tom Parker Fountain, celebrated for its synchronised play of water jets and changing display of coloured lights. Also a member, A B Hurst and his wife donated the Floral Clock.
In 1954, the club donated the Pania of the Reef sculpture. Sited just south of the Tom Parker Fountain, it too has become a Napier icon. The statue made national headlines when, in 2005, it was stolen from its limestone rock base. It was recovered a fortnight later and re-set, in a much more secure fashion, onto the original base.
One of the biggest events to be staged in the gardens is the annual Great Gatsby Picnic. Held as part of Napier's Art Deco Weekend celebrations, the picnic attracts enthusiastic locals and visitors who dress in 1930s style to picnic, play, posture and parade on the long stretch of lawn.
Two-hour parking is available along the garden frontage. Long-stay car parks are located at the north of Marine Parade and south of the Sunken Garden.
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