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Architect Harold Ship spent decades making a mark on Montreal

Harold Ship is seen in New Zealand on a volcanic moraine in 1990.


When he was two years old, Harold Ship was given a hammer by a Jewish workman who came to his family's modest apartment in Westmount, Que., for kosher meals prepared by his mother. The hammer struck a passion in the child: He would spend hours bashing nails into a door frame, much to his parents' chagrin.

Mr. Ship lived that passion all his life. As a builder and architect, and as a husband, father and employer, he was happiest when working with his hands, nurturing, creating, playing and showing by example.

"He wasn't the kind of dad who would sit down and play with your toys. You played with his toys," said his daughter, Heidi Ship. "We gardened and built things with him. Like stone walls – I remember he had us collecting stones, which he would pay us for by size."

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Of medium height, with a bushy beard and an unruly head of hair, Mr. Ship was one of the first chartered town planners in Canada, drawing up plans for everything from shopping centres to communities such as Nun's Island, located in the St. Lawrence River just south of the island of Montreal.

But over a career that lasted more than half a century, his work was so much more than that, ranging from small-scale interiors to large commercial/residential projects. There were restaurants, bowling alleys and factories. There were the crumbling stone buildings in Old Montreal that he saved and rebuilt as apartments and office spaces with high ceilings and generous, open rooms.

He and business partner Hyman Krakow ran their own firm out of one of those buildings, complete with a roster of clients that read like a who's who of corporate Montreal. They included Dominion Textile, Reitmans clothing stores, IGA and Metro groceries, Odeon cinemas, Air Canada and Molson Breweries, which Mr. Ship was so faithful to, he never drank any other brand of beer.

Mr. Ship is perhaps best known for Alexis Nihon Plaza, a project right on the edge of downtown Montreal that broke barriers when it was unveiled more than 40 years ago. For the first time in the city, there were apartments and offices in towers that were connected to a shopping centre and the metro, or subway system – a multi-use development where you could live, shop, work and even exercise, all in one place. Although the development has been changed over the years and was partly destroyed by a fire, the apartment tower remains a testament to his vision.

Mr. Ship died at home on Aug. 20 at the age of 91 of natural causes. He leaves his wife, Nancy, and his children, Martin, Heidi, Annabelle and Steven.

This summer, Mr. Ship donated all his files – boxes upon boxes that stretched for 28 metres, filled with plans, drawings and correspondence – to Quebec's National Library and Archives. He wanted to mark an era in the city's history, a time when Montreal was not so much a greying dowager but a thriving, reigning queen.

Archivist Julie Fontaine was amazed by both his generosity and the longevity of his career. "He continued to work right up until 2010," she said. "It is so hard to single out one project, but when I asked him which one he was most passionate about, he smiled and replied, 'Alexis Nihon.'

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"His papers are so important for future research because his work was so varied and the papers really show us how an architect's office worked over a long period."

In a letter to the archives, David Covo, an architecture professor at McGill University, called Mr. Ship's oeuvre a defining 50-year "moment" in Montreal's history – one that spans a period of intense and adventurous investment in the city's future.

"The list of his built work includes the architecture that defines every citizen's experience of the city," Mr. Covo wrote. "(It's) a tantalizing glimpse of who we are and where we came from."

Harold (Herschel) Zvi Ship was born in Beaconsfield, Que., just west of Montreal, on July 27, 1922, the third of Jacob and Annie Ship's five children. The family was enjoying a break from their small, hot and stuffy apartment above Jacob Ship's tailor shop in Westmount when Mrs. Ship went into labour. Her obstetrician had to rush out by train to help her give birth.

Growing up, there was little money for extras, so to help make ends meet his mother prepared meals for Jewish construction workers who otherwise would not have been able to find kosher food in the area.

Besides his early passion for construction, young Harold loved to garden, tending plots the City of Westmount provided for children; the flowers they grew were placed in planters along the main streets. From his father, he learned how to make pickles – a recipe he spent his life trying to master – while his mother taught him to make applesauce. When he was older, he added hard cider to his repertoire, and bruschetta from the tomatoes that he was famous for cultivating.

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Around the age of 16, he dropped out of school and lied about his age to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. He yearned to be a tail gunner but it was not to be: Through unhappy experience, he found out he suffered from airsickness, becoming nauseated almost as soon as the tiny fighter planes took off. Instead, he trained as a radio operator. At one point, he was stationed in the far north, monitoring the shortwaves for coded messages that could signal an attack.

When the war ended, Mr. Ship used the veterans' program to go to McGill. There, he pursued his passion for building by studying for a degree in architecture while also working full-time at an architecture firm. It was at once exhilarating and exhausting. Upon graduation, he was immediately made a firm partner.

At McGill, Mr. Ship and his friends, who were older than most other students and didn't like hard-partying fraternities, started one of their own they called "The Georges." Democratic and lacking any kind of hierarchy, everybody who joined was known as "George" because it was a plain, simple name used by both commoners and kings. They believed that education was a great equalizer and a powerful tool that could change lives.

Mr. Ship lived by that credo the rest of his life. Sandra Horley, who at the age of 24 was working as his secretary, recalled that he was always emphasizing the value of education and actually funded her first course at college.

"With Harold's help, I went on to Oxford University and later became the CEO of Refuge, a national domestic violence charity in the U.K.," she wrote in an e-mail. "He was a wonderful, caring, generous man."

While at McGill, Mr. Ship met the love of his life. At the time, he was president of Hillel, the student Jewish organization, while Nancy Solomon was its secretary. They married on July 28, 1953, one day after his 31st birthday. A patient speech pathologist who worked with autistic and developmentally delayed children and their families, she was the perfect counterpoint to her husband, who always seemed to be on to the next thing before the first one was finished. Together they travelled the world and spent time in Florida and at their farm in Vermont, working the land without gloves so they could feel the dirt beneath their fingers.

Both lived very much in the present. When they went to Israel for the first time, Mrs. Ship sent the rest of the family a photograph of her husband at the Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. If you looked carefully, you could see him sitting on a bench amidst the crowds, reading that day's New York Times.

No matter what he was doing, Mr. Ship would always stop to watch the sunset, preferably with a glass of good wine. This was his magic hour, a moment of repose in a busy and engaged life.

Editor's note: This obituary of Harold Ship originally said he was born in Beaurepaire, Que. That is the historic name of the city of Beaconsfield. Also, Mr. Ship's wedding date was July 28, 1953, not 1954 as originally reported.

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