Photo by Richard Sisson; flag illustration, Kelley Samanka, Communication Design, Inc.
La Maison Française — the first and oldest language house at the University — this year celebrates its 20th year in the historic Barringer House on Jefferson Park Avenue.
Once a novel undertaking that some even considered a maverick experiment, this venerable grandmère is now firmly woven into the fabric of University traditions and has been a model for newer language houses. Robert Denommé, the longtime French department chair and creator of La Maison Française in its current form, recounted the house’s history at a commemorative dinner this spring.
The idea originated with a group of students who rented a house on 14th Street so they could eat meals together and speak French. The house was so ramshackle, Denommé recalled, that one evening he went for dinner and had to leave through a window because the front door was stuck closed.
When Denommé learned that the former home of Dr. Paul Barringer, the last chairman of the faculty of the University, was available, he persuaded investors to restore the once-elegant building as a French language house.
Kathryn Sims has presided over the kitchen and dining room since La Maison Française opened, and Christine Zunz has been director for the past 18 years. Zunz does everything from choosing the residents — roughly 50 students apply each year for 28 spots — to raising money and acquiring perks like a pair of Air France tickets to Paris for Valentine’s Day weekend for one lucky resident in 1990. Zunz helped residents organize U.Va.’s first French film festival this past spring.
Denommé, who retired in 1997 after 31 years on the faculty, said the French House experience is “better than just learning a language.” It forces the residents, he said, “to express themselves on a variety of levels to people that are different than themselves.”