Wednesday 20th February 2019 – Paris
It seems that Harry unlike parents was quite willing to declare a favourite, and it was France that won his favourite country vote. In some ways it is not surprising as it seems like the country after the US where Harry spent most time. In fact he lived in Paris from September 1935 to August 1936 whilst he helped realise the Maison International project.
Part of the draw was Monsieur Auguste Desclos, who was a key player in the starting of the Maison in Paris, and became a very close life long friend of Harry’s. Desclos had grown up in England and spoke perfect English and French and it seems was an engaging soul. He first met Harry in 1927 when he was in charge of all the universities and schools in France came to the US and visited International House in New York.
The Cite Universitaire had been started after WWI by Andre Honnorat with the first ‘maison’ being funded by Emile Deutsch de la Meurthe. This was followed by individual ‘houses’ funded either by wealthy donors or countries including Argentina and Canada. Today the Cite houses around 12,000 post graduate and research students each year and is expanding to add a further 1800 beds through a number of new Houses. Similarly to the International House idea, the underlying philosophy is all about living and working together to create greater understanding. From the start the ‘country’ houses had to mix up students with other ‘countries’ houses so there was some diversity in each house and a huge diversity across the whole site. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cité_Internationale_Universitaire_de_Paris
When Desclos visited I-House NYC in 1927 they were looking at how to have a communal building and thought that modelling it along the lines of International House would be beneficial. They were also in need of a donor to fund it so the close relationship between Harry and J.D. Rockefeller would have been a consideration. In fact our tour guide had found the letter in the Rockefeller archives where Mr Desclos asks Harry to approach J.D. to fund the Maison.
The House was finally opened in 1936, this was nearly decade after Rockefeller had originally agreed to fund it. There were a number of false starts and although Rockefeller did not want to get involved in the project, in the end he decided that he would have to and assigned a whole team to its completion, which then happened within two years. The land was given for the site, Rockefeller funded the building of the Maison and then handed it over to the Cite Universitaire Foundation to run it.
The Maison International was to be the central communal building amongst the individual ‘country’ residences and to provide the canteen, sports, arts, practical and library facilities.
The canteen could feed over 5000 students a day and was one of the first self service restaurants in Paris so considered very modern. The pool too included technology from the US so was one of the best in Paris when it opened.
Today the Maison is open to the public as well as students. There is a thriving Theatre, lovely cafe and sports facilities. The Biblioteque (Library) is free for students and open to other paying customers. We were lucky enough to meet Marie-Dominique Loustalot who has been Directrice du Biblioteque for some 30 years. She explained that the library is focused on the study of the French language and literature and they have every type of resource you could imagine along with also having recently acquired, thanks to a large capital donation, an extensive collection of French literature from the former French colonies in Africa and Middle-East.
We were given an excellent tour by Eglantine Pasquier, who is doing her PHD on the philanthropic work of J.D. Rockefeller in France (which includes restoration at Versaille and other key sites as well as funding Maison International). I was joined by Francois Rey who had lived at I-House NYC whilst doing his MBA at Columbia in the 90s and Pierre Gottreaux who has a long association with International Student House London.
If you live in Paris or visit Paris, it is well worth visiting the Cite, the history is fascinating and the park is open to the public all year round. The 40 + residences all have different architecture and many are by now famous architects such as Corbusier.
Harry was also great friends with Jeane Thomas who started as assistant to Monsieur Honnerat when he was overloaded with work and was so capable expanded her role over the years. So when he came to Paris, as he seemed to do frequently, he stayed with either Desclos or Mme. Thomas. The Maison International was always a slight source of frustration to Harry as it was never quite as he had hoped. In his view they never maximised the possibility of interaction between nations and did not have the extensive cultural program of the I-Houses in the US.
Visiting the site I am not sure I agree with him, I think it is a wonderful place offering many opportunities to build international friendship and understanding, it is just being done in its own way.