Imagine having to empty an enormous house in which you and your family have lived for generations. What surprises might you find in abandoned closets, the attic, dusty storage boxes and other nooks and crannies?
That strange and exciting experience is precisely what the staff of the French Cultural Center faced when, after la rentrée, we tackled the daunting task of clearing out all five floors of 53 Marlborough Street to make way for the building renovation we already have told you about.
For several weeks, we discovered (or, re-discovered) items that had been amassed since the Center – then known as The French Library in Boston – moved into the building in 1961. Some items had entered our possession even earlier – as far back as the library’s founding in 1945! (The library was located at 126 Newbury Street until 1947, and then at 10 Arlington Street until 1961.) Every day of the cleanout was an adventure. Here are just a few notable items:
Among the most prized possessions was the framed Croix de Lorraine. Tucked into the alcove of the staircase leading down to the kitchen, the cross was visible to the public, but just barely. Symbol of General Charles de Gaulle’s Forces françaises libres during the Second World War, the flag was a gift from the French Library’s founders, who led the Boston chapter of the France Forever movement. After the renovation is completed, the Croix de Lorraine flag will be displayed more prominently.
In a remote basement closet, we found several emotionally powerful propaganda posters from World War I. We are examining the FCC archives to learn how they were acquired.
On a bookcase in one corner of Salle Alliance, “hidden in plain sight,” stood a handsome copper rooster, a symbol with long and strong associations with France. We have looked at the rooster dozens of times. But, when we examined it closely, we re-discovered that the rooster was a gift from Lucy Sprayregen, a long-time FCC friend and former president of the Alliance Française of Boston & Cambridge.
A shallow closet contained dozens of reel-to-reel audio tapes from the 1970s – evidence of the Center’s long engagement in teaching French. No longer having use or value (neither monetary nor sentimental), the tapes went the way of most obsolete technologies…
For the dedicated bibliophiles who have led the FCC since its foundation, parting with old books was never easy – as we learned upon discovering some 5,000 old books crammed into one little-used office. These books either never entered, or had long ago been removed from, the library’s catalogued collection.
We made the painful decision to send to recycling volumes that were disintegrating or fatally impregnated with book mold. Some volumes we saved for possible restoration to the library’s active collection. We came upon a number of books in English, many of which had nothing to do with France. We found a good home for many of those books at the Brattle Book Shop, whose owner pleasantly surprised us by making a cash donation to the FCC.
We were despondent when it came to removing the splendid chandelier from the gallery room. The gorgeous crystal fixture, which once illuminated another historic Boston home, was not the FCC’s property; it was on loan to us from the Museum of Fine Arts. We telephoned the MFA, expecting to have to surrender the piece. Imagine our surprise and delight when the MFA instead chose to gift the chandelier to the FCC!
The fixture needed to be removed nonetheless for safekeeping during the renovation, as well as for a thorough cleaning and restoration of missing crystals. The refurbishing company arrived with a van specially outfitted to hang the chandelier in the cargo hold, where one employee was assigned to sit and hold onto the fixture to prevent it from swaying during the ride!
In an unused closet, we rediscovered the FCC’s old collection of over 150 reels of 16mm French film prints. We found a new home for them at Emerson College, which has the proper equipment to maintain and showcase them. (The FCC’s Ciné Club continues, of course, using digital technology to show both classic and new French films.)
We donated various articles of furniture to an elementary school, a daycare center and Habitat for Humanity. An architectural salvation company purchased built-ins formerly in the kitchen, pantry and other areas. Our goal was to find homes for as many items as possible.
We are using the closure forced upon the FCC by the Covid pandemic to accomplish the much-needed renovation. We anticipate reopening toward year-end, which is when health experts anticipate it will be safe once again to gather in large groups. Until then, the FCC continues to serve students and members with online classes and cultural events – and, whenever possible, to gather outdoors in small groups.
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Stay tuned for our next renovation update, which will show the next step of the renovation process: demolition of various spaces on all five floors of the building. Those photos will not be for the faint of heart!