In the summer of 1918, Professors Hugh A. Smith and Jeanne Harouel Greenleaf founded the first French language immersion university residence in the United States with the support of the Department of Modern Languages. 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.
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, francophone professors, community francophiles, and francophone scholars brought to Madison each year to ensure immersion at the residence.
Early 19th century photo of the Delta Upsilon house, location of the first “French House” in the summer of 1918.
The French House at 1105 University Avenue
The search for a suitable location 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.
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.
Hélène Monod Cassidy was named Officier des Palmes Académiques and Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite by the French government for her work as President of the French House from 1962 to 1976.
During these post-war years, the actual discipline of foreign language was placed in question; to some, its study was deemed “un-American,” and many considered oral practice an “ancillary” activity to the more important grammar-reading method. 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 enrolled in French at UW-Madison; ten years later, enrollment plunged by over 40%.
In the early 1930’s, 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. Professors Julian Harris and H. A. Smith took charge of the accounts and secured an annual subvention from the French Government to create scholarships for students. 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.
Moreover, the University accepted a very surprising arrangement: 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 part of their teaching load.
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.
Rebecca Aronoff and French Assistant Mireille Gallienne on a chilly morning in the winter of 1956-1957.
Two residents in the salon in the 1970s.
If you know their names, please contact us!
Fortunately, Mrs. Gertrude Slaughter, one of the original stockholders, came to the rescue. In the past, she 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. This Amie de la Maison Française, UW-Madison honorary degree recipient, patroness of the arts, author, and Grande Dame left her home on Frances Street to the French House when she passed away in 1963. Repairs and city ordinances made remodeling her home into a student residence impossible. The French House committee had to demolish the old Victorian home but managed to spare 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.
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.
For more than 100 years, the French House has been a learning center where students have sharpened their conversational skills while increasing their cultural awareness, and the community has sharpened its sense of diversity while increasing its support for one of the most exceptional educational institutions in Madison.