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History & Centennial

History & Centennial

The Columbia Maison Française was founded in 1913 as a “center for the study of French civilization and French literature," initially housed in a townhouse on West 117th Street, and was the first such cultural institute established at an American university. This singular French house was launched by Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler in tandem with a professor exchange agreement with the Sorbonne. A newly created France-America Society, presided by Butler, was also headquartered at the Maison Française. These initiatives put Columbia at the forefront of French-American exchange on the eve of World War I, when French would come to replace German as the most studied foreign language in the U.S.

Throughout its illustrious history, the Maison Française has led the way in exposing New York audiences to eminent French and Francophone thinkers, writers, artists, and political figures, while promoting rich exchanges across a wide range of topics. Among the visitors to the Maison Française were Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Louis Aragon, Edith Piaf, Eugène Ionesco, Marcel Marceau, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Derrida. At critical moments, events organized by the Maison Française have helped Americans interpret French history and ideas even as these were unfolding.  For example,  during World War II the Maison Française mounted two significant exhibits about de Gaulle and the French Resistance, and Jean-Paul Sartre spoke at the second exhibit on his first visit to the U.S. in 1945. Later, starting in the 1970s, conferences and talks held at the Maison facilitated the dissemination of “French theory” into the American academic mainstream. The last two decades have seen the scope of programming broaden to include Francophone and post-colonial studies, areas of particular strength at Columbia, and to include a range of disciplines.

The Maison Française celebrated its Centennial in 2013 with an exhibition about the history of the Maison Française and of the special relationship it has helped foster over the past century between Columbia University and France. To learn more about this history and view our rich trove of historic photographs and documents, visit our online Centennial exhibition