By Maria Saporta
The Alliance Francaise d’Atlanta celebrated its 100th birthday at a Centennial Ball on Saturday night at the Four Seasons. Reaching the 100-year milestone is an amazing feat for the city and for the Alliance Francaise.
At the Centennial Ball, we honored former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, for all the contributions he has made in making Atlanta the international city that it is today.
Young eloquently spoke of the influence that France continues to have in the world and how valuable it is to have the French point of view in international relations. It was my honor to thank Young for all he has done for our city, our nation and the world.
In honor of the event, I wrote up the 100-year history of the Alliance Francaise organization, which I wanted to share with you.
I have had a close relationship with the Alliance since 1963 when my mother, Nora Saporta, was one of the co-founders of the school — which gave the organization a physical presence and a source of revenue. (We will celebrate the 50th birthday of the school next year).
Because of my close family ties, I was drawn to find out more about how Atlanta, as far back as 1912, began putting its international stake in the ground. Here is the history that I wrote for the program booklet:
A Centennial History of the Alliance Française d’Atlanta
Long before Atlanta proclaimed itself as the “next great international city,” a distinguished group of local residents established the Alliance Française d’Atlanta.
The year was 1912, and Atlanta was still a relatively small Southern town with a population of about 155,000. But it had always been a town with big dreams.
Fast forward 100 years, and the Atlanta of today is a metropolis of more than five million people with the largest and busiest airport in the world — connecting Atlanta to Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America. Indeed, Atlanta has become the next great international city — home to about 2,800 foreign-owned facilities employing more than 130,000 people. Around 65 countries are represented in Atlanta, including 67 full and honorary consulates and trade offices as well as 48 bi-national chambers of commerce.
Atlanta’s evolution as an international city with a French flavor can be traced back to 1912. The Alliance Française organization had originally been founded in Paris in 1883, and the Alliance Française of the United States was formed in 1902 by James Hazen Hyde. Ten years later, Hyde came to Atlanta to attend an elegant reception in his honor at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Felber, and so the Alliance Française d’Atlanta was born.
Among the founders of the Alliance Française d’Atlanta were then Atlanta Mayor John Slaton and Laurent DeGive, the Belgian consul in Atlanta, who developed the famed DeGive Opera House (later the Loew’s Grand Theatre) in the heart of downtown where the movie Gone With the Wind premiered in 1939.
The organization’s first gathering took place in early 1913 at the Carnegie Library and was attended by six people, including its first president, Mrs. Slifer, and Charles Loridans, who served as the organization’s second president until 1944. His legacy continues today through the Charles Loridans Foundation, an important benefactor to the arts.
The first 50 years of the Alliance Française d’Atlanta were rich with social and cultural events (as recorded in two sources: the organizational history notes of Germaine Brown, who was an active member from 1924 to 1953 and who became its president in 1944; and a short history written by Ivan Kirstiuk, who was active with the organization through the 1980s).
The social group would meet primarily in members’ homes for their meetings, and about two times a year, the Alliance from Paris would send speakers that included dignitaries and well-known literary figures, such as Gaston Cherout, Maurice Genevoix, André Siegfried, le Comte Serge Fleury, and Max-Pol Fouchet, among others. In the mid-1940s, Atlanta threw a “magnificent” reception for 50 French officers who were passing through for a few hours.
About 100 Atlantans came to an event in the grand hall of Terminal Station, which had been decorated with large American and French flags. Among the honorees were le Comte Serge Fleury, who had given two lectures in Atlanta before the war, and well-known French writer Jacques Deval. On the day of the liberation of Paris, the Alliance Française d’Atlanta arranged a celebration in the Tea Room of Rich’s Department Store.
The Alliance continued as primarily a social and cultural group until the fall of 1963, when the Ecole de l’Alliance Française d’Atlanta was formed by Nora Saporta and Jean Lardon, who was then co-president. It will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2013.
The school was housed in donated office space consisting of one classroom and an office at 50 Whitehall Street above the “Three Sisters” store in a building that still had manually-operated elevators. With a $75 budget, they bought ten classroom chairs at $1 apiece, a blackboard and a few textbooks. Air France donated a used desk and three armchairs.
The school started with 35 students divided into four classes of two levels — and among the first teachers were Mrs. Saporta, Blanche Hawner, Margery Krebs, and soon after, Simone Estep. In 1965, Louis Chatagnier, an Emory professor, became president of the Alliance, and he urged the school to adopt the then state-of-the-art audio-visual method to teach French.
The school continued to grow. It moved from Whitehall Street to 800 Peachtree St. and later relocated across the street to 795 Peachtree St. before moving to its fourth location at One Midtown Plaza in the 1980s.
The school celebrated its 25th anniversary in the lobby of the Midtown building, and about 700 people attended the celebration. Then Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young proclaimed Friday, Nov. 8, 1988 as “Alliance Française Day in Atlanta.”
Among the attendees were Honorary French Consul Homer Houchins as well as the leaders of the Alliance — Chairman Richard Munroe; President Fabienne Collier; Mrs. Saporta, the founding director of the school until the 1990s; Monique Stutes, treasurer of the school; and Claude Wegscheider, who was executive director of the Alliance.
By that time, Delta Air Lines had been flying non-stop between Atlanta and Paris for three years, the school was teaching French to as many as 500 students, and dozens of cultural and social events were held on an annual basis.
In 2009, the Alliance moved to its current home at Colony Square where it shares space and co-sponsors events with the Goethe-Zentrum Atlanta, the German language and cultural center. Such a close Franco-German cultural partnership is unique in the United States if not the world. Today, the organization is led by executive director Hélène Courault-Touré and president Daniel Wolff.
Since its inception, the Alliance Française has contributed to the blossoming of Atlanta as an international city — a role it continues to play as we celebrate our Centennial year by honoring one of the city’s great international treasures: Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Written by Maria Saporta, a co-vice-president of the Alliance Française d’Atlanta and daughter of the Ecole’s co-founder, Nora Saporta.