The Maison Française was created in 1913, and first housed in a townhouse at 411 West 117th Street, as a "center for the study of French civilization and French literature, with the upper floors arranged for the accommodation of visiting French professors." It was the first French cultural center of its kind established on an American campus. Just two years earlier, Columbia's Deutsches Haus had been founded across the street at 430 West 117th Street. The opening of these two language houses coincided with the establishment of exchange agreements that would bring visiting German and French university professors to Columbia every year. Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler fostered these initiatives to create a greater international presence at Columbia and encourage the growth of modern language studies.
The Maison Française has moved house several times and is now located in Buell Hall, the oldest building on Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, situated just east of Low Library. First known as Macy Villa, the red brick house was originally built in 1885 as a residential facility for wealthy male patients living at the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, Columbia’s predecessor on the site, and is the only remnant of this colorful past. Today Buell Hall is shared by the Maison Française and the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.
For nearly a century, the Maison Française has provided a home for all things French at Columbia. Throughout its history, the Maison Française has played a key role in exposing American audiences to leading French thinkers, writers, artists and political figures, and promoting rich French-American exchange across different disciplines on a wide range of topics. At critical moments, the Maison has interpreted French history for Americans even as it unfolded, helping shape public opinion in the two countries. At the height of WWII, for example, the Maison Française mounted an exhibit showcasing the efforts of the Free French in the fight against Nazi Germany, and just after the war’s end, in 1946, Jean-Paul Sartre came to the Maison Française to speak at the opening of an exhibit presented by the Maison on General de Gaulle and the Liberation.
The Maison Française has hosted many distinguished visitors over its rich history, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Louis Aragon, Edith Piaf, Eugene Ionesco, Marcel Marceau, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Derrida. More recent speakers have included Marc Fumaroli, Hubert Védrine, Jean-David Levitte, Adam Gopnik, Maryse Condé, Aminata Sow Fall and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.