As our 30th Anniversary Celebration approaches, Elizabeth Stribling, Chairman, Denis de Kergorlay, President, and the Board of Directors of French Heritage Society are pleased to pay tribute to Michèle le Menestrel Ullrich, Founding President, and Marie-Sol de La Tour d’Auvergne, President Emeritus, through two campaigns to raise funds for a historic monument to which each have chosen to lend their patronage.
The association has flourished since its creation by Michèle le Menestrel Ullrich in 1982, as Friends of Vieilles Maisons Françaises. Since the first donation, for $250, which marked the beginning of a long and successful history, the association has awarded nearly five hundred grants totaling nearly ten million dollars, and which, through matching funds, has led to a doubling and even tripling of the amounts allocated. Additionally, the educational programs currently offered are more dynamic than ever as seen by an increase in student exchanges between France and the United States, as well as the success of the prestigious Richard Morris Hunt Fellowship for experienced architects in heritage preservation, a program especially dear to Michèle’s heart.
Gazing out the window of her Parisian apartment on a winter day, Michèle recently spoke with Karen Archer about this campaign and her many thoughts on French Heritage Society as it approaches this milestone anniversary. She has chosen the Château de Gizeux, in the Loire Valley, for this special campaign, a perfect symbol of everything that she has worked on for over so many years. “This château is on a human scale” she says with obvious delight and the same passion that led her to found the association 30 years ago. “It is so noble in its construction, so representative of the French heritage. It has lived and evolved over the centuries.” But it is not just a monument to the past. “Today, Stéphanie and Géraud de Laffon have chosen to raise their six children there, perpetuating a chain of generations that have invested the château with a true spirit. It is open to the public and the entire family displays an inexhaustible imagination in organizing activities, which are much needed to support it and to keep it alive.” Gizeux is famous for its Galerie des Châteaux dating from the 17th century. “The murals of the gallery require imperative restoration, including one that represents the Château de Fontainebleau. It is, fittingly, the Château de Fontainebleau that will host our 30th Anniversary Gala in October. Could this be a sign of destiny?” she wonders with amusement.
Looking back on the association’s history, she stresses, “it must be remembered that FVMF was the second Franco-American organization to have the two countries work together. We were created in my apartment in Neuilly. I think that our carpet over there became our famous meeting place, we had no offices, only ideas, volunteers and a lot of determination.” The same spirit prevails today. When her husband, Jose Maria Ullrich was named Ambassador of Spain to Pakistan in 1992, Michèle joined him there and was succeeded at FHS by Marie-Sol de La Tour d’Auvergne who continued to oversee the young association’s development.
“What inspired me to found this association, first of all, was the deep love I had for America. I was born during the war, and we will never forget what America did for us. It is something which is part of us. I was attracted by the vitality, the dynamism, the sincerity of the American people. The sky is the limit in America, and so it proved to be. I wanted to work hand in hand with Americans to further a common interest. At that time I had not discovered that American heritage as much as I have now. But I deeply felt we had a great reservoir of goodwill and shared history between our two countries in order to work together.” This is the famous “two-way street” that Michèle often invokes.
The success of the association and Michèle’s vision for it was immediate. “It was a great success on both sides. [The] Americans were exposed to this beautiful French heritage and received as friends in historic homes, many of which were and still are in private hands. On the French side, the memories of all the ties between our two countries were very vivid. I had French people waiting in line to generously receive us. Thanks to the benefits from those events we were able to fund our programs, first in education and then grants. This still continues today.”
One of the programs of which Michèle is the most proud is the Richard Morris Hunt Fellowship. She created it in 1990 and runs it in partnership with the American Architectural Foundation. Since 2009, it has been funded with the generous support of Lafarge. “Last December the 23rd RMH Fellow was selected” she says with obvious pride.
To conclude, Michèle turns her attention back to the Château de Gizeux. “I [can] appreciate the spirit that the Laffon family has – that determination to create, preserve and flourish, even against great odds. After all, that is also the history of French Heritage Society”. So what better way to pay tribute to Michèle and her enduring vision that is French Heritage Society than by helping to support a project that embodies its goals, the Château de Gizeux.