N ITS EARLY YEARS, the Maison Française acted as a national information bureau for “all students interested in France and French institutions,” and galvanized French-American exchange not just at Columbia but also on a national level. The Maison hosted annual visiting French professors in its guest apartment, compiled a French library, launched a publishing venture called the Library of French Fiction, and published a free newsletter, the Bulletin de la Maison Française de Columbia University, that delivered French-American news to universities in France, the U.S., and Canada. The Maison awarded scholarships to French and American exchange students just as university exchanges were first developing, and created a Committee on American Scholarships for French students, with a welcoming committee chaired by the president’s wife. The Maison Française held planning sessions for an American College in Paris and facilitated dialogue between French and American universities. It also served for some time as an information center for the Office National des Universités et Écoles Françaises and the Société des Professeurs de Français aux États-Unis.
In addition, since its earliest days the Maison Française has organized talks, receptions, meetings of student groups (such as the Romance Club), and informal gatherings where students could practice speaking French “in a French atmosphere of delicate refinement.”
The Maison Française scaled back on the more national of its ambitions by the late 1920s, perhaps because the France-America Society moved off campus, leaving the Maison with part-time directors who had short tenures and a more local focus on Columbia. Things became livelier again starting in the late 1930s and 1940s under the direction of Ian Forbes Fraser and Eugene Sheffer. Activities expanded to include lectures, exhibits, film screenings, musical performances, and receptions for French writers and artists, as well as thés-causeries and Friday afternoon tea dances for students. The Maison began offering conversation classes and literary discussion groups, and became a meeting ground for new student groups, including the French Graduate Union and the French Glee Club. The book library and music library were open to the public on weekdays. From the late 1930s to the 1950s, a homespun phonetics laboratory—then on the cutting edge of language teaching—offered students a chance to practice their French pronunciation using “records made especially for them” by Professor Jeanne Pleasants, on record players fabricated by a Columbia student. For many years French immersion classes were taught at the Maison during summer sessions.
Starting in the 1970s with Jacqueline Desrez, directors have worked with faculty members in French and other disciplines to deepen the academic mission of the Maison Française, organizing major conferences, dozens of scholarly talks every year, and other ongoing activities that continue to foster a community of shared interest in France and the Francophone world at Columbia.