During part of her time in Pullman, Anne H. Fornfeist of Deer Park lived at Spanish House.
A member of Sigma Kappa Phi, she would go on to graduate from Washington State College with a degree in foreign languages and literature in 1922 and raise a family in the fertile farmlands of the Yakima Valley. One of her sons, another Coug, would became a state representative, senator, and congressman before serving as secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Sid Morrison (’54 Hort.), featured in the Summer 2023 issue of Washington State Magazine, knew his mother went to college in Pullman and that she lived in Spanish House. But what was Spanish House?
The September 1919 issue of Powwow, the alumni magazine of that era, announced its inception with the headline “‘Spanish House’ for Young Lady Students.” Opening that month at the start of school, Spanish House was a new women’s residence “in which all the residents will speak nothing but the Spanish language.“
The house, also called “Little Spain” in the press, “was located at the far end of Star Route street,” according to a Sept. 14, 1919, story in the (Spokane) Spokesman-Review. It was “furnished á la Spain.” And it was described this way, under the headline “Set Up ‘Little Spain’ Home For State College Students; Teach Language By Practical Application Is Aim Of Faculty,” in the story found in the Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections (MASC) at Washington State University Libraries:
“In the house there is not a bit of carpet on the floor, not a chair, not a dish or vase or anything that is not Spanish. There is a cabinet sized grafanola”—an early 20th Century phonograph—”and all its records are Spanish. The style of table fare may not be entirely Spanish, but whoever says, ‘Pass me a bun,’ must say it in Spanish before any bun will be forthcoming. It is a Spanish environment. It is the next best thing to a trip to Spain, where everything from the king down is Spanish and one cannot stop a streetcar without stopping it in Spanish.
“The founding of this Spanish house for students of the language is the outcome of an idea. The idea is that to teach a foreign language in classroom is an uphill, if not quite an impossible job, unless it is supplemented with the national environment and conversation that goes with the language. ‘How many people,’ comments Professor (Frank C.) Chalfant, head of the language department here, ‘have studied a foreign language in classroom and textbook, and then found themselves unable to understand people who talk it. You must live in a language, as well as study it in a classroom.’”
Spanish House was, in that era, a nationwide novelty. A 1993 WSU Week story explains WSC’s Spanish House “was the nation’s first Spanish House.” When it was established in 1919, WSC “became the only institution with two individual language houses.” Along with Columbia University in New York City and the University of Wisconsin, WSC had also established one of the country’s first three French Houses.
The Spokesman-Review, Sept. 14, 1919
A Daily Evergreen story from October 7, 1920, announced French House would be in full operation next semester at 1712 A. St. “The house will be furnished so as to give it true French atmosphere. The plans this semester have become somewhat slowed up on the account of the resignation of its preceptress, Madame Weigelt. A French woman has been engaged for next semester and it will be carried out as successfully as the Spanish House has been. At present, the girls who will occupy the house board at Stevens Hall.” Five students were also already living at French House with “Professor and Mrs. Campbell.”
Spanish House was run by “Mrs. Meana,” mother of Bernardo Meana, who taught Spanish at WSC and was also an artist. Draft registration records from 1917 show a Bernardo Meana from Madrid living in Chicago and working at a motor company on Michigan Avenue. Born in 1894, he immigrated to America in 1914 and died in Florida in 1954. His mother’s first name was listed as Matilda.
His sister, Concha, “a charming miss who has not yet become acquainted with the American tongue,” according to the Powwow story, assisted her mother in running the residence. “The mother and daughter lately arrived from Madrid and at once completed plans for the opening of the novel residence, upon the suggestion of the son, who was here last year.”
According to the Spokane newspaper, “Señora Meana is too good-natured and loves her children too much to scold, but if she ever scolds them or anybody else, it will be in Spanish. It is part of her contract with the department of foreign languages to scold in Spanish.”
The newspaper also noted there was “a big demand in Latin America now for American business and teaching methods—social service workers, teachers, scientists and so on, including a wide range. But they must know Spanish.”
Chalfant told the newspaper, “It is one thing to study Spanish or any foreign language by conventional teaching methods, get a passing grade, and let it go at that. It is another thing to study Spanish and when one has completed the course, have a working knowledge of the language. Unless one supplements study with the Spanish environment, in which he talks the language at home, hears it gets it just as it is spoken and understood by the natives, a lifetime of study would not make one thoroughly proficient in this language.”
Chalfant wrote in a 1920 letter to O.L. Waller, acting dean of the College of Science and Arts, that there were 457 students enrolled in foreign languages at that time: 7 in Italian, 30 in German, 34 in Latin, 186 in French, and 200 in Spanish.
He went on to call the establishment of both the French House and the Spanish House “two of the most important and far-reaching plans of the department,” noting both were “successfully carried out.”
In fact, the first year of Spanish House was so successful that the residents had to be moved to a larger home. By then, Chalfant—as noted in his letter to Waller—was already dreaming of constructing a “large” and “true” Spanish-style house.
“Six enthusiastic girls” lived at Spanish House that first year, according to the 1924 Chinook. “They spoke its language, sang its songs, learned its customs and its cookery. So great was the success of this unique home that accommodations for double the original number were sought in 1920 and the present modern home at the edge of the campus was purchased and dedicated to WSC’s new ideal of language teaching.”
According to the 1920 course catalog, “Applications for admission to the Spanish House should be addressed to the head of the Department of Foreign Languages of the State College.” The residence had been established “in order to provide special opportunities for those wishing to perfect themselves as rapidly as possible in the Spanish language,” the catalog noted, calling the Meana family “a cultured Spanish family from Madrid.”
Concha Meana also apparently taught Spanish at WSC. She’s listed in the 1922-1923 Washington Education Directory as an “instructor in Spanish.” But her tenure was short-lived. The September 1924 issue of The Alumnus already named her replacement. 1940 census records show a Concha Meana living in Florida with her husband, two sons, and a daughter.
In October 1924, residents at Spanish House paid $29.50 to $42.50 per month in rent, depending on the room, according to a letter from Chalfant to President E.O. Holland.
In a handwritten letter dated several days prior to Chalfant’s accounting, the majority of the residents of Spanish House had written to Charles Applewhite Isaacs, general secretary of the college as well as head of the department of mathematics, alleging “unbearable” conditions. Complaints included the finding of a dead mouse in a drawer of a buffet in the living room. (Decayed was underlined three times.) Other concerns were cracked windows and the lack of heat and furniture. “One girl has given up her bed to put in the living room for a couch,” residents wrote, noting these conditions “do not lead to good scholarship” and inviting Isaacs to see for himself. The missive was signed by 11 women.
University archivist Mark O’English matched students in yearbooks to phone directories from the 1920s to try to determine where that larger “modern home at the edge of the campus” might have been. His best guess: “It looks like it was one of several houses on Campus Drive which were where Wilmer-Davis now is.”
The 1925 Chinook listed 16 members of Spanish House. And that appears to be the last year of Spanish House. Minutes from the June 16, 1925, Board of Regents meeting mention of the abandonment of Spanish House, “and I never again find the phrase used after that in a non-historical context,” O’English says. “So it really seems it was just 1919-1925.”
French House endured much longer. A black-and-white 1979 photo of French House in MASC shows a house at 725 NE Campus Ave. with a caption noting that particular house became French House, also known as La Maison Française, or as Language House, in 1973. French House was home to about 13 French-studying or French-speaking students. When it and neighboring houses were demolished in 2003, the location, west of the President’s House, became a parking lot and a new French House was established at 405 Colorado St.
The lead of a story in the Daily Evergreen from April 4, 2005, declared, “The French House, a long-standing tradition at WSU, is looking to make a comeback,” hosting French films every other Tuesday night as well as crêpe nights. Six students were living in the house at that time, and they were looking for roommates.