Brits plea for house facelift

July 24, 1998

THE British House in the international university city on the edge of Paris is in serious disrepair and needs urgent renovation, but no donor is forthcoming.

Other national houses in the city are subsidised by their governments, but Britain has never contributed to the upkeep of "its" 1930s hall of residence, which accommodates 232 students from 42 nationalities.

The Cite Internationale Universitaire de Paris was an ideological response to the horrors of the first world war. Andre Honnorat, minister of public instruction, Paul Appell, rector of Paris University, and industrialist Emile Deutsch de la Meurthe planned a community where students and academics from all over the world could live in harmony.

Mr Deutsch de la Meurthe made the first donation, providing a residence for 350 French students. Construction continued until the outbreak of the second world war. Patrons from many countries financed halls of residence which took the names of their countries - Maison du Canada, Maison du Japon.

A British couple, Edward and Helen Nathan, financed the British House and John D. Rockefeller Jr, the central neo-Louis XIII Maison Internationale.

The styles of the buildings tended to reflect the nations. Belgium's massive brick edifice is almost reminiscent of the Grand' Place in Brussels, and the interior of the Maison du Maroc is tiled like a hammam. Le Corbusier's 1932 Swiss House is a listed historic monument.

When building resumed between 1947 and 1967 governments mainly provided finance and identity for the houses. Under the private foundation that runs the Cite, each residence has a council on which representatives of the country take active roles.

The Cite accommodates 5,500 residents (of whom a third are French) from 135 countries. Each of the 37 halls of residence houses has a mixture of nationalities, with a maximum 40 per cent from the host nation. Under the rules, students must be postgraduates under 30 enrolled in a university or other state institution of higher education in Paris or nearby.

Employees on training courses and post-doctoral students may also live there. The 40-hectare Cite includes facilities for 39 different sports, four theatres, a 50,000-volume library as well as separate libraries in the residences, computers and Internet access, conference rooms, banking facilities and a restaurant.

Amid this, the imposing red-brick British House, with its leaded window panes and timbered galleries is falling into ruin.

Former Glasgow University student Mike Martin, president of the residents' council and a postgraduate registered at the Sorbonne, has led complaints about conditions and closure of the student common room. He believes his part in the protests has led to non-renewal of his lease.

Ruth Jones, a student in European Union studies at Liverpool John Moores University on an Erasmus year here, said: "My room was really dirty and disgusting so I painted it myself."

Roland Marx, professor of British history and civilisation at the University of Paris III and house manager, wrote to the Prince of Wales for sponsorship. The reply was charming but disappointing.

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