In 2018, the French House will celebrate 100 years of service to the UW-Madison community and our students of French.
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
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
Fortunately, one of the original stockholders, Mrs. Gertrude 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.
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
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.