Here at the French Cultural Center, members, students, and visitors often ask about the history of our building in Boston's historic Back Bay. As it turns out, we're located in one of the most French-inspired parts of the city, architecturally speaking (see Second Empire / Mansard architecture). And in fact, our "home" is actually two! You may not have noticed right away, but our building comprises two connected brownstones that were once homes to prominent Boston families.

The story of these buildings as we now know them starts with Edna Ellen Doriot, a driving force of the French Library in Boston from 1949 until her passing in 1978. During her tenure, the two buildings that now house our offices, classrooms, library, and event spaces were secured.

A French Past

houseThe 53 Marlborough Street side of our building was originally built in 1867 for the Codmans, a Boston family since 1637 who allegedly had French ancestry and spoke French at home. The house was designed in the French Academic style by Charles Brigham, a partner in the architectural firm Sturgis and Brigham. Conforming to the traditional style of 19th century mansions, the house had a salon and dining room, as well as a large basement kitchen, servants quarters, bell system, dumbwaiter, and other features that invoke images of the "Upstairs Downstairs" lifestyle.

Throughout the late 19th century, when the Codman family traveled abroad, a number of others inhabited the home, including the King and the Armory families. In 1904, the home was willed to the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard College.

A Creative Gift

In 1905, the building was purchased by the Lane family, who subsequently made significant renovations to the home, adding an extension to the west side of the house where our ballroom now exists.

Unlike most other properties in the neighborhood, ours still has its original iron fence. We owe this to the Weems family, who maintained it during World War II while others were melted down and used for ammunition.

The Weems family were alledegly Francophiles and received French language lessons on the third floor of their home together with other established Boston families. Perhaps this was the motivation for their daughter, Boston sculptor Katharine Lane Weems, when she gifted the home to the French Library (our former moniker) in 1961.

SIDE NOTE: You may know Katharine's work from her permanent exhibit at the Museum of Science, the Lotta Fountain on the Charles River Esplanade, the Dolphins of the Sea at the New England Aquarium, or the Rhinoceroses in front of the Harvard Biological Laboratories.

The Rest Is History...Or Is It?

Finally, in 1972 the adjoining building at 300 Berkeley Street was acquired to be used as a media room. There isn't much more to this story except to mention that in 1988 renovations were undertaken to further integrate the two buildings for the growing community that we have now become.

And there you have it - a brief summary of a not-so-brief history of this beautiful Boston building. More fascinating details about our house exist (A glass mailbox! Belgian choir stalls! A salon fit for Josephine!), but they are too many to include here. Perhaps a Chez Nous, Part Deux is in order?

Stay tuned in the coming year as you may notice the start of some renovations that will take our building into the 21st century. We promise you'll hear more about this soon - we're excited and you should be, too!

Photo credits:
Marlborough Facade: 53 Marlborough (ca. 1967), courtesy of the Boston Landmarks Commission and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution/Non-Commercial license
Katharine Lane Weems: Katharine Lane Weems, circa 1915. Katharine Lane Weems papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, unidentified photographer [Public domain]
Berkeley Facade: 300-304 Berkeley, with First Church in the distance (ca. 1885), courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum

Jamie Haslett

Director of Marketing

Originally from New Jersey, Jamie graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in International Business and a minor in French. She also completed a semester abroad in Marseille, France. Jamie fell in love with the French language as a child when her sister brought home a high school French book, and looks forward to continuing her education at the French Cultural Center.

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Fall Open House

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Wednesday, September 18, 2019 2:00 PM To 3:30 PM

Join Benjamin this month for an in-depth discussion of Cantatrix Sopranica L. et autres écrits scientifiques by Georges Perec.

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