“The House is really all its name implies, for no matter how little or how much we try to learn or how little or how much we speak French, everyone absorbs a certain quantity of the sort of French that is rarely learned on this side of the Atlantic.”
This statement could have come from anyone who has lived at or visited the French House, a nonprofit French-immersion residence run by members of the UW-Madison Department of French and Italian. But, incredibly, it was written by one of the first residents in the summer of 1918.
“It’s all the things students experience today, 100 years later,” says Andrew Irving, who began directing the French House in 1995 while he was pursuing his PhD in French. “The French House still creates that community.”
When professors Hugh A. Smith and Jeanne Harouel Greenleaf opened the French House in the Delta Upsilon fraternity house, its initial temporary home, they founded the first university francophone residence and cultural center of its kind in the country.
At the time, study abroad was uncommon and teaching placed more emphasis on the written, rather than the spoken, word, so French students rarely had opportunities to immerse themselves in the language. The first residents — 21 American women and three French women, as the French House was for “girls” only at the time — relished the chance to interact entirely in French with each other, fellow students, French professors and Madison Francophiles.
Many things have changed over the past century: The French House is now situated on the shores of Lake Mendota on North Frances Street and includes men among its 33 residents. But the passion for French culture and connection has remained.
“The French House is a residential learning community, an immersion experience, a cultural melting pot and a culinary workshop.”
Residents and visitors alike can partake in conferences, lectures film series and other special events, or join Wednesday dinners and Friday lunches, which are open to the public. Weekday lunches are open to students, and those who attend regularly can receive credit for their participation.
“The French House is a residential learning community, an immersion experience, a cultural melting pot and a culinary workshop,” says Ritt Deitz, director of the Professional French Masters Program. “It’s a lot like studying abroad, and to that extent it very often deepens the perspectives students develop in classrooms when discovering new texts with their classmates and professors.”
The immersive environment also greatly enhances students’ language skills, Irving says. “While they are able to tweak their more formal language skills, they quickly develop an agility with the spoken language that normally only comes from living abroad.”
The Department of French and Italian is fortunate to have the French House, says professor and department chair Gilles Bousquet.
“It is the cultural center of the department and as such plays a very strong outreach function for us,” he says. The French House allows the department to network far beyond campus and create connections that cross departments.
“It is a home for students of French across the university,” he says, “thus enabling the department to reach students in many disciplines who may not be students in the French Department but keep up their interest in French language and culture.”
The highlight of my experience was the lifelong friends that I made.”
For many who have called it home, the French House becomes a defining college experience.
Nicholas Davis was a resident in the early 1990s, while pursuing degrees in journalism and French. Now a chief information security officer with the UW System, he has introduced his two sons to the community, and they attend French camp at the French House. “The highlight of my experience was the lifelong friends that I made,” he says. While he always looked forward to family-style dinners, another favorite memory came afterward, when residents would gather to watch Star Trek, the Next Generation in the grand salon. “We would discuss events on the show — in French — as we watched.”
By contrast, Maureen O'Brien has traveled far from Madison since graduating in 2003 with degrees in French and flute performance, and a certificate in Western European Studies. After living in seven states and two countries, she now lives in Miami, working as the senior vice president for development at the New World Symphony. But she recalls fondly the mix of music and language at the French House. “I performed my junior recital at the house,” she says. “In addition to studying flute, I was also taking voice lessons, so I split the recital between flute and voice, and programmed all French composers including Debussy. It was really special to be able to invite my friends from the music school to experience my recital at the house.”
Before Zach Wright finished his final class at UW-Madison this summer, graduating with a journalism degree with an emphasis in strategic communications, he spent his entire college experience at the French House. And he has no regrets. “The people are the best part,” he says. “One day you’re talking to a trilingual student about her summer internship at the US embassy in Slovenia, and the next you’re talking with a Tunisian foreign exchange student about the music in his home country.”
To date, more than 2,000 undergraduates have lived at the French House. And everyone with a connection to the place is invited to join in the anniversary celebrations, which culminate during Homecoming Weekend in October. A Centennial Gala takes place on October 19 at the Memorial Union, followed by a tailgate brunch at the French House on October 20 before the big game.
“This Centennial Celebration is a time for us to take stock in where we’ve been, where we are and where we’d like to be in the future,” says Irving. “Many of the former residents are most looking forward to a chance to reconnect with the French House, their classmates and the campus. I hope that they will leave after the weekend with a renewed sense of pride related to their French House residency, and that they will see how their participation has helped to nurture a culturally significant Madison tradition.”