Salut! French House celebrates 20 years
By Brevy Cannon
Photo by Dan Addison
|Robert Denommé, retired chairman of the French department, sits on the front porch of the Maison Française.
As the first and oldest language house at U.Va., the French House has gone from being a novel undertaking, considered by some a maverick experiment, to being firmly woven into the quilt of University traditions. The many language houses that have sprung up since this pioneer was launched in 1986 have been modeled, to a greater or lesser extent, on the venerable Maison Française.
On April 28, the Maison Française celebrated 20 years in the historic Barringer House on Jefferson Park Avenue with a reception and dinner for current residents, alumni, faculty members and friends. Robert Denommé, long-time chair of the French department and the creator of the Maison Française in its present form, gave a brief history, explaining that the idea originated with a group of students who had rented a house on 14th Street so they could eat meals together and speak French. The house was so ramshackle, Denommé said, that one evening he went for dinner and had to leave by climbing out a window because the front door was stuck closed. After learning that the Barringer house, former home of Dr. Paul Barringer, the last chairman of the faculty of the University (a position antecedent to University president), was available for restoration, Denommé persuaded investors to restore the once-elegant building as a French language house, “a place expressly created for the pursuance and refinement of language skills first acquired in various classrooms.”
At the commemorative dinner, former and current students reflected on what the house meant for each of them. Former resident Stephanie Gepford (Arch ’05) said her time there was her “best experience at U.Va. by far.” Alumna Catherine H. Clark (Coll ’90), who lived in the house for three years, reminisced about how she had made her “two best friends in the world” while at the French house. Rising third-year Tori Crandall noted that the abundant French conversation in the house has “really improved” her listening comprehension.
Kathryn Sims, who has presided over the kitchen and dining room of the Maison Française since the day it opened and who has won the hearts of generations of residents, was presented an award recognizing her exceptional contributions. She was “so kind to us” said Clark, remembering weekly meals of Cornish game hens, and lots of quiches and soups.
For the past 18 years, Christine Zunz has been the director of the French House, and she has come to be identified so closely with the house that “when people see her, they say ‘the Maison Française’,” said Denommé. Her duties have included choosing the residents based on an application and 30-minute interview, and raising money to fund a number of special events every year, some of which are co-sponsored with other departments. This past October the house joined several departments to sponsor a production of “HUGO LIVE,” in which Québécois singer and songwriter Alain Lecompte told the life story of author Victor Hugo (Les Misérables) through 27 of Hugo’s poems set to original music.
Events of the past 20 years have included a three-day symposium on Charles de Gaulle, father of the modern French state, that drew speakers from all over the world, including Jacques Barzun, one of the founders of the discipline of cultural history; a symposium on women’s literature; and presentations by eminent French figures such as Le Monde journalist Pierre Assouline, historian Emmanuel Leroy Ladurie and folk singer Erik Vasson. For Zunz, such programs fulfill another mission of the French House — to serve as an academic French embassy to Charlottesville for the benefit of the community at large.
To that end, this past spring French House residents, with help from Zunz, organized U.Va.’s first French film festival. Thanks in part to funding from the French Ministry of Culture, the three-day festival drew nearly 700 attendees.
Zunz’s fundraising has also led to some exotic percs for the residents. In 1990 one lucky resident won a pair of tickets to Paris for Valentine’s Day weekend, donated by Air France. Another year, a student won a seven-day trip to Martinique.
Even though international study opportunities at U.Va. have increased dramatically in recent years, applications to live at the French House have not declined. The French House continues to receive roughly 50 applications per year for the 28 spots. The house will “always be something that students will enjoy” said Zunz, noting that some students will never be able to go to France or visit a French-speaking country, but they can stay at the French House for the same price as living in typical dormitories.
Denommé, the Douglas Huntly Gordon Professor Emeritus of French Literature, who retired in 1997 after 31 years on the U.Va. faculty, recalled the “esprit d’corps” that he felt at the anniversary celebration and reflected on what defines the French House experience. “It’s better than just learning a language. It forces [the residents] to express themselves on a variety of levels to people that are different than themselves,” he said. “I sense that they get something out of
it that’s not immediately explainable. … I don’t want to compare it to a fraternity or sorority, but it’s like that. They get to know each other socially as well as intellectually. … It rejoices you when you see that.”