ODAY THERE SEEMS TO SPRING UP SPONTANEOUSLY IN THE HEARTS OF FRANCE AND THE UNITED STATES a desire for mutual understanding and sympathy. Columbia University could not be in the background in such a movement; on the contrary she has taken a leading role,” wrote the Columbia University Quarterly in March 1913. The creation of a Maison Française at Columbia, “devoted to the interests of French culture in the United States and serving as the headquarters of the France-America Committee in New York,” would provide a “permanent, acknowledged center of French culture in New York—a domicile, a home identified with what we may call the France-America movement.”
The idea of creating a Maison Française in 1913—the first of its kind on an American campus—began with President Butler and found support among his fellow trustees of the France-America Committee, whose mission was to develop ties between the two countries.
Butler, a cosmopolitan and a devoted internationalist, believed it was essential to expose Columbia students to foreign languages and cultures. In 1911 the university founded a Deutsches Haus in tandem with an annual Kaiser-Wilhelm visiting professorship for a German scholar, negotiated by Butler. If Germany was the first to get its house at Columbia, this was because German culture wielded much greater influence at the time in the U.S., thanks to the large German-American population. German was the second most widely spoken language after English, and was the most popular foreign language in American high schools and colleges. Thousands of German-language newspapers, schools, churches, and German-American associations flourished in the early 1900s. One of the largest associations, the Germanistic Society of America, donated the funding for Columbia’s Deutsches Haus and made its headquarters there.
Butler wanted to do as much for France by establishing a visiting professorship and a Maison Française. To win support for this idea, he played on French jealousies, telling Louis Liard, president of the board of the University of Paris (the Sorbonne), that France ought to claim the same presence at Columbia as Germany had. Liard signed onto an agreement with Butler to bring a visiting professor from the Sorbonne to Columbia and in turn to send an American colleague to give lectures in Paris each year, starting in 1911–12.
French-German rivalry for American affections also motivated A. Barton Hepburn—the first president of the France-America Committee and a prominent banker and philanthropist—to donate a townhouse for the Maison Française. In announcing his gift to Butler and the trustees, Hepburn wrote, “I have had in mind to place the French interests in this City on a par with the German, for some little time, and it seemed an opportune moment.”
Hoping to “set on foot some practical movement to foster French culture” at the university, Hepburn wanted to “bring about a cooperation between Columbia University and the Committee ‘France-Amérique.’” Butler’s replied: “I want you to know at once how ardently we have desired a Maison Française and how hard we will try to make the best possible use of it. . . . The way is now open to bring about a genuine revival of interest in French history, French literature, French civilization, and French culture.”
The same impulse made Columbia the first college institution to organize an “educational American college tour of France,” in the summer of 1912, and again in 1913; the second tour was planned in alliance with the Sorbonne and France-America Committees in Paris and New York, and “under the auspices of the Maison Française.” A separate tour was arranged for college women and teachers. Students from Columbia and other colleges signed up for the 80-day tours to explore Paris and the French provinces, traveling over 3,000 miles and visiting “fifty sites of interest” and several universities. French archeologists, artists, and professors were hired to guide the students so that they could “see France from a French point of view” and “view as much of the art of the French people and the out-of-door charms as possible.”