Founded in 1897, with the mandate to promote French culture in Chicago, the Alliance Française is among the oldest of cultural institutions in the city. Prominent Chicagoans on the founding Board of Trustees were James Deering, Z.P. Briosseau, Charles Henrotin, William Burry, H. Chatfield-Taylor, Charles R. Crante (the first American minister to Russia and China), William R. Harper (first president of the University of Chicago), Herbert S. Stone and James Gamble Rogers.
Originally located in the Fine Arts Building on South Michigan Avenue, the initial
activities of the Alliance included language lessons, lectures and a lending library
of French books and materials. Le Cercle, a salon of causeries littéraires,
provided a unique opportunity to hear and speak French. In the early 1900s, the
Alliance joined with the Art Institute and the University of Chicago to expand into
a much-needed teaching space.
As the Alliance’s activities grew, the organization continued to move to larger spaces and in 1983 it finally found its current home at 810 North Dearborn Street, part of a row of historic townhouses that were slated for demolition. The Ecole Boulle in Paris chose the Chicago Alliance’s new home for a renovation project in celebration of the Ecole’s centenary. The particularly French architectural designs were complemented with furnishings from France, and included paving the parkway in front of 810 North Dearborn Street with imported Paris cobblestones. Today, the Boardroom on the fourth floor remains the most impressive example of the Boulle décor.
The adjoining building at 54 West Chicago Avenue was acquired in 1997 with a gift from the French government, followed by a capital campaign led by visionary members of the Board of Directors to renovate the newly acquired space. The main floor auditorium, Salon, upstairs classrooms and lobby, state of the art demonstration and teaching kitchen, as well as the renovated library space and Chez Kids Academy in the Dearborn building all bear witness to these ambitious and successful plans for expanding the Alliance’s reach in Chicago as a center for French language and French speaking culture.
Throughout its history, the Alliance Française de Chicago has played host to a diverse group of guests; welcoming presidents, ambassadors, royalty, authors, film directors, fashion designers, academics and visual and performing artists to its premises. Most notably, in 1987, the former president of France, George Pompidou, and Madame Pompidou attended a dinner at the Palmer House hosted, in their honor, by the Alliance Française de Chicago and the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.
Notable literary figures lecturing at the Alliance have included Simone de Beauvoir, André Maurois, Jean Giraudoux, Michel Butor, Philippe Claudel (Prix Renaudot), Nobel Laureate J.M.G. LeClézio, François Nourissier, who later became President of the Académie Goncourt, and the philosophers Henri Bergson, Jacques Maritain and former Justice Minister Robert Badinter. Professors from the Sorbonne and other distinguished French universities have given lectures in their areas of expertise at a number of Alliance events over the years.
The Alliance has been fortunate to host couturiers such as Pierre Balmain and Hubert de Givenchy. The performing arts have been well represented with appearances by Sarah Bernhardt, Edith Piaf, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Maurice Chevalier, Marcel Marceau, George Balanchine, Yul Brynner, Maria Callas, Régine Crespin, Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. To encourage an appreciation of French theater, the Alliance, in partnership with the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre has been instrumental in bringing performances of la Comédie Française to Chicago.
Throughout history, the Alliance Française de Chicago has functioned as a concerned global citizen, making important contributions to the war relief effort of World War I, World War II and to the reconstruction efforts after those wars. The Alliance held fundraisers for the war-time needs of the American Red Cross. Members rolled surgical dressings and knit sweaters in Alliance facilities to be sent to Europe. Some of the most generous members of the Alliance were awarded the Légion d’Honneur for their efforts in supplying grain and supplies for devastated France after World War I. The Alliance also provided complimentary French language instruction for service men and women who were deployed to Europe at that time.
Today, the Alliance Française de Chicago hosts an impressive array of events. The organization continues its long tradition of bringing notable lecturers to Chicago: authors, filmmakers and directors, winemakers, chefs, designers, historians, actors and performing artists. Virtually every aspect of French speaking culture throughout the world is included in the Alliance’s broad range of programming, with the Alliance frequently partnership with local, national and international institutions. Classes are offered for all ages and levels of French, leading to certifications in French for professional purposes or simply for the fun of learning and experiencing another language and its various cultures. On any given day, hundreds of our members and students cross the threshold at 810 North Dearborn, and we currently count nearly 2,000 members and over 3,500 enrollments throughout the year.
In the highly engaged civic spirit of our city, the Alliance Française is proud to contribute to its cultural richness as Chicago’s premier French educational and cultural institution.
Special thanks to Ms. Harriet Gulis for her help in preparing this historical review of the Alliance Française de Chicago.