Location: The former Garden City Press building is at 1, rue du Pacifique, at the corner of avenue Garden City, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue on Montreal’s West Island. The gardens are a few steps away. 45.4 N, -73.95
Within Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, a town on the southwest shore of Montreal Island, is the enclave of the Garden City Press and the community designed for its employees. Both the operation and management of the Press and the founding of the community reflected the social convictions of James John Harpell (1874-1959).
Harpell had intended to become a blacksmith but, influenced by the owner of the foundry where he worked, he studied on his own and ultimately completed his B.A. at Queen’s University. A tour of major industrial centres in Europe in 1909 and 1910 convinced Harpell that technical education was key to industrial success. Shortly after returning, Harpell and a friend from university, Alexander Longwell, formed the Industrial and Educational Publishing Company Limited and established premises in Montreal and Toronto. They aimed to become the top industrial and trade journal publisher in the country, a goal they achieved. However, while Harpell certainly aimed to create a profitable company, he was simultaneously interested in promoting his social ideals, primarily the virtues of self-directed study for tradespeople.
In 1918, needing more space in the Montreal area, the company moved to Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue — selected because the ambience of the town fit well with the type of enterprise he wanted to build. Harpell was impressed by the social and town planning ideas of England’s Ebenezer Howard which he learned about when he was in Britain. Howard’s “garden city” concept exemplified the idea of a complementary relation between town and country which was illustrated in the first garden city to be built in 1903 at Letchworth in Hertfordshire, England. Harpell developed “Gardenvale” with garden city ideas in mind. He wanted workers — from editors to typesetters — to live and work in healthy, pleasing conditions so he built employee housing nearby the printing plant in a park-like setting. The noted Canadian landscape architect, Frederick G. Todd, created the landscape plan for the site. A former gravel pit was turned into a fish-fed pond, with trees, shrubs, and exotic plants around its edges. A wide variety of plants for the company’s grounds and gardens were cultivated in a large greenhouse.
Although the formal and legal name of the press was the Industrial and Educational Publishing Company Limited, it was known as the Garden City Press, a name that aptly tied Harpell’s aspirations for the community to its economic base. The Garden City Development Company was formed to construct houses for employees; and in 1936 the Caisse populaire de Gardenvale, a credit union, was created to handle workers’ banking needs. Harpell paid the membership fee in the Caisse for employees and deposited 25 cents a week into each employee’s account. Harpell also covered the costs of night courses for his employees; successful completion of courses earned employees a likely pay increase.
Harpell was a life-long proponent of self-study, having used this approach himself to move into post-secondary education and to succeed in business. In 1922 he started the Institute of Industrial Arts through which he aimed to offer courses useful to various kinds of workers. He wanted workers to have more knowledge and information about the work they were doing and use that as a basis for expanding their general education. Courses were delivered at night to Gardenvale Press workers, and also by correspondence to others. In addition he helped start a community Study Club for residents of Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue in 1922. Study and examinations covered such subjects as Everyday Science, offered in both English and French. While slow to get rolling, by 1934, the French section of the Study Club filled the Town Hall to capacity, while the English section occupied the boardroom of Garden City Press. Harpell’s Study Club was contemporaneous with the Antigonish Movement’s study clubs in Nova Scotia. As it happened, French-language publications of the Antigonish Movement were printed by the Garden City Press. In the 1930s members of Antigonish-inspired study groups focused on the effects of the Depression and on deciding collectively how they could improve their situation. They organized credit unions, co-op stores, and other cooperatives in response. So, too, in the 1930s, the Ste-Anne’s Study Club shifted focus somewhat from business and technical skills to political issues, questioning government policy in areas such as unemployment and the private monopoly of electric power.
It was in this social environment that, in 1940, the Gardenvale Development Company transferred ownership of the houses to its employees at a highly discounted price of $40 per month over 10 years; and in 1945 Harpell sold the Garden City Press to a workers’ cooperative at a price well below market value, with a portion of the sale price to be paid into the co-operative’s Educational and Welfare Fund. In 1953 Harpell forgave the remainder of the sale price that was due. The Press co-operative continued to update its technology and to improve the development of its employees until it closed in 2000.
The social intent and the garden city ambience of the original town plan of Gardenvale are still evident today in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, particularly in the character of Garden City Avenue and the houses that line that street; and in the public park-land and community centre.
by Blanche Lemko van Ginkel
05.09.11; updated 10.10.16
- Bélisle, Michel. 2003. “Gardenvale: James-John Harpell, ce philanthrope visionnaire,” in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue 1703-2003: 300 ans de présence. Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, QC: Paroisse Saint-Anne-de-Bellevue (avec la collaboration de Michel Daoust, Michel Phaneuf, Hélène Jasmin, René Limoges, Denis Tellier): 175-180.
- Quarter, Jack. 2000. “Harpell’s Press,” in Beyond the bottom line: socially innovative business owners (Westport CT: Quorum Books): 103-118.
- Vincent, Paul. 1996. “L’imprimerie coopérative Harpell: ses origines exceptionnelles, son développement.” Montréal: Chaire de coopération Guy-Bernier, Université du Québec à Montréal. https://chaire-ccgb.uqam.ca/upload/files/70.pdf; accessed 10 October 2016.