In the summer of 1918, Profesors Hugh A. Smith and Jeanne Harouel Greenleaf founded the first French language immersion university residence in the United States with the support of their colleagues in the Department of Modern Languages (the corporation – The French House, Inc. — was established in 1922). In the years that followed, the French House became an institution on campus and began serving not only its residents but the greater Madison community by hosting dinners and cultural events throughout the year.
In 2018, the French House will celebrate 100 years of service to the UW-Madison community and our students of French.
When the French House began, students rarely had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the language, study abroad was next to impossible, and teaching methods placed more emphasis on the written word than the spoken phrase. The French House thus created an environment where residents could interact – entirely in French – with other students, French professors, community francophiles, and young French scholars brought to Madison each year to ensure the most French of atmospheres.
Finding a suitable location was of course a challenge, yet the search ended when the committee chose to rent and redecorate the Delta Upsilon fraternity house. This large brick building was nearly empty at the time because most of the fraternity members were in the armed forces. What is most interesting is that this house, located on the shores of Lake Mendota at the end of Frances Street, still owned and occupied by DU, is directly across the street from the French House’s present location.
In its first year, 21 American women and 3 French women occupied the House; the French House was only for “girls” at the time.The following year, the boys of DU were to return to school and the committee found itself again in search of another location. A rooming house served as the center of operations for three relatively successful years. However, it became clear that a permanent location was desperately needed. Unable to convince the University to establish its own French House, the committee formed a non-profit corporation and sold stock to raise the capital necessary for a down payment. The articles of incorporation were drafted and signed by Professors Casimir D. Zdanowicz and Lucy M. Gay. Many members of the Department of Romance Languages, three or four professors from other departments, and a few community members bought stock for $25.00 per share and in 1922, the French House “Inc.” bought a home at 1105 University Avenue.
In the 10 years that followed, the French House faced almost insurmountable obstacles, namely, financial difficulties and challenges to its mission by prevailing trends in foreign language. The House almost met with bankruptcy until it was able to refinance its mortgage. In addition, the impending depression kept income to a minimum and forced many students to opt for the barest of living conditions on campus. As for teaching strategies, many considered oral practice an “ancillary” activity to the more important grammar-reading method. As if that were not enough, during these post-war years, the actual discipline of foreign language was placed in question; to some, its study was deemed “un-American.” Consequently, high school curricula reflected this change and many colleges dropped their foreign language requirements. In the 1920’s, there were over 2,500 students on average enrolled in French at the UW-Madison; ten years later, enrollment plunged by over 40% or about 1,000 students.
In the early 1930’s, the French House underwent a series of repairs. A leaky roof, a collapsed chimney, rotting siding, rusted out gutters, a defunct furnace, and falling plaster all drove the corporation further into debt. Adding insult to injury, the manager at the time ran up bills around town and by October 1, 1933, the French House owed a considerable debt of $17,000 to banks and merchants in Madison.
Despite these odds, both monetary and academic, the French House slowly climbed out of debt just as the study of French gained back its prestige in high schools and universities across the country. Professor Julian Harris took charge of the accounts and was able to arrange a deal with shopkeepers to accept a few cents on each dollar owed (it was either that or nothing since the creditors would have taken everything if bankruptcy were in fact declared). In May 1933, Prof. H.A. Smith was able to secure a relatively small yet worthwhile annual subvention from the French Government to create scholarships for young students who might not otherwise have enjoyed the French House experience. Other contributions came to the House by way of the generous gifts of professors who turned over their honorariums for lectures and income from translations and interpreting.
At this same time, the University accepted a most interesting arrangement, one that, to this day, surprises those curious enough to ask. The college consented to pay the hostess and the visiting French assistants for their service to the French House because it was finally agreed that the time and effort they spent with the American students was, in fact, part of their teaching load. The manager, however, would have to be content with meals in en exchange for services.
In the post-WWII era, faculty teas, receptions, soirées, dinners, réunions of the Circle Français, concerts and other events gave proof to the statement that “C’est toujours la fête à la Maison !” One of the most memorable celebrations took place on April 26, 1956, when the ceremony of the burning of the mortgage took place. However, this euphoria of financial freedom would be short lived. As the 50’s came to a close, not only was it evident that the French House had outgrown itself, the university’s never-ending expansion resulted in the property being taken over. The Chemistry building took over the block where the French House and other homes once stood.
Fortunately, one of the original stockholders, Mrs. Slaughter, came to the rescue. This Amie de la Maison Française, UW-Madison honorary degree recipient, patroness of the arts, author, and Grande Dame announced that she intended to leave her home at the end of Frances Street to the French House. How fortuitous that the organization return to its original roots in Madison on the shore of Lake Mendota, just across the street from where it all began. In the past, Mrs. Slaughter had accommodated many student boarders — including Maurice Gras, professor emeritus of French and past president of the French House, Inc. — and so it was quite natural that her home continues to support French and francophone studies in Madison. Unfortunately in 1963 when the Grande Dame passed away, a number of repairs and city ordinances made remodeling her home impossible for it to become a residence for 30 or so students. Reluctantly, the French House committee decided to demolish the old Victorian home but spared much of its furnishings and even the glass from the front door. These items, as well as the spirit of Mrs. Slaughter live on in the more modern French House that remains at 633 North Frances Street.
This French House remains an active part of the UW-Madison community. Weekly dinners and lunches, the Ciné-club, meetings of the Circle Français, numerous departmental receptions and conferences, and most recently, classes for the Alliance Française all take advantage of what this building has to offer.
Yet as the French House embarks upon this new millennium, even more auspicious endeavors are in the works. Most importantly, for the last twenty years, the French House has existed comfortably on her own merits; there has been no real need for members of the Board of Directors to come to her rescue, as was the case in the first 60 years. Consequently, this Board became all but extinct. In the fall of 1999, however, the new Board of Directors held its first annual meeting. Former residents, faculty, French teachers from area schools and colleges, civic-minded francophiles, and longtime supporters of the French House came together to begin a new adventure, namely, the organization of the French House Foundation. With intelligent investment and fervent fund-raising, the Foundation will initially provide two scholarships, tuition plus room & board, to deserving undergraduate and graduate students. In the years that follow, the Foundation will provide the financial resources necessary for the French House to take aim for the twenty-first century with funding for renovations and serious remodeling to include, among a few major projects, a classroom.
For almost 100 years, the French House has been a learning center for a countless number of individuals. Students have sharpened their conversational skills while increasing their cultural awareness, administrators have sharpened their managerial skills while increasing the House’s net worth, and the community has sharpened its sense of diversity while increasing its support for one of the most exceptional educational institutions in Madison. Ultimately, while locations have changed, and people have come and gone, la Maison Française continues to welcome all lovers of things French. Once within its walls, one is immersed in an unselfconscious world where the spoken word reigns and fellowship prevails.