The significance of working in a building with a thousand years of history first struck me when then Tufts President Jean Mayer expressed his delight that Tufts could now claim to be older than Harvard, by six centuries!
As a Frenchman, Mayer was no stranger to old buildings, and indeed admired the Prieuré’s ancient stones right from his first visit there, in 1976. I was with him, and it was pretty clear that his fertile imagination was working overtime to determine how to convince the Tufts trustees to take on this precious responsibility, virtually unprecedented for an American university.
Hosting the Olympics
So from 1978, when Tufts took the reins, we dug in… and around, and through and over. Many centuries of use, by many people— from the original Benedictine monks, to a maker of cider, to the MacJannets and their friends, to others lost in time— had left their marks on this structure. Our job was to convert it to a study and conference center for 20th– and 2lst-century use by students, international conference attendees, and staff. While Donald MacJannet and many volunteer friends and hired workers had made the building useable on a part-time basis (see page 5), it fell to Tufts to prioritize (and pay for) what was needed for constant and durable usage.
Sagging floors were torn out and replaced, toilet facilities were installed, tons of dirt previously used for attic insulation were shoveled out and replaced, and the venerable walls were meticulously recovered in appropriate plaster. We were assisted and guided by the French Monuments Historiques, which by French law needed to approve most changes. Les Amis du Prieuré, the local organization that now sponsors many lectures and student exchanges, assisted in its early years by providing a legal necessity: a French sponsor for historic preservation funds. Subsequently— particularly after the Prieuré was used as the headquarters for the U.S. Olympic Team in the 1992 Winter Olympics— new windows and more insulation allowed the Prieuré to be utilized well beyond the summer months. (It now operates from April through October.)
As the European Center took shape, the MacJannet Foundation continued to act as stewards of not only MacJannet ideals but indeed the entire legacy of Donald and Charlotte themselves. And the Prieuré, of course, has become an important piece of this legacy. Several MacJannet Foundation members, most notably Howard Cook, gave material assistance during the Tufts European Center’s early years.
Then and now
So what is it like to be a college administrator surrounded by a thousand years of history as you wake each morning? Surely the bird song is the same today as it was in 1018, and somewhere there would have been bells chiming, as they do now. The monks next door at what is now the Hotel de L’Abbaye would have begun their day by rounding the corner to the church, which stood in front of the Prieuré, and the Prior would have left his quarters to join their prayers. One can imagine gatherings in what is now MacJannet Hall, with its magnificent caisson ceiling, and perhaps there would be music then, as now.
The building’s thick lower walls, as well as les oubliettes, still maintain hints of harsher times, when the Prieuré might also have served as a fortress and protection for locals. On hot summer days, those walls now provide a cool respite for visitors. We know the monks consumed wine, given the examples in Annecy’s museums, where the “one glass of wine per day” period gave rise to one-liter glasses. And there was learning, and caring for others, including the pilgrims who stopped by the garden gate for food before continuing on their way. Today that very same garden gate still welcomes those who seek the peace and solitude of the mountains and lake, and the very particular spirit of acceuil which hasn’t changed in a thousand years.
Mary Harris was director of the Tufts University European Center from 1982 to 1989 and a longtime trustee of the MacJannet Foundation. She lives in Santa Barbara, California.