Mary Lyon by Alice Santos
Posted on October 31, 2013
I love to look at old buildings on the Wheaton campus. If I had to pick a favorite it would be Mary Lyon. The structure and design rival any building built by today’s standards. The building we know as Mary Lyon had once been called New Seminary Hall. The New Seminary Hall was built in 1849 to replace the old Seminary Hall that once stood in its place. It was enlarged in 1878 to include a science wing to the south, a gymnasium and library in the west wing, and additional classrooms in the east wing. The magnificent staircase and the cupola were added also. Originally the color of the building was tan and dark brown. In 1900 it was painted the very pleasing yellow and white. It was renamed Mary Lyon in 1910. Mary Lyon was a pioneer of education for women. She developed the first curriculum and rules. She also brought Wheaton its first principal, Eunice Caldwell.
Just before the building was completed a fire broke out in the basement. A breakfast cook at the college spotted the fire and help arrived before it got out of control. I read that the charred beams from the fire could still be seen in the basement. I wondered if that were true so I asked my Building Service Manager, Patti Tessitore, if she knew anything about it. She said lets go take a look and off we went to check it out. We looked around the huge basement and we found several charred beams. The beams were slightly charred on the outside, but you could see that they were still as strong as ever. The beams are under the area where the grandfather clock stands in Mary Lyons.
Patti also told me that the attic was once a dormitory. We went to the attic to see where the students once lived. Decades of dust and spider webs did not stop the imagination of what it once looked like. The dorm room sets above the Holman room overlooking East Main St. Through the dust you could still see a solid hardwood floor. Along the walls you can see rectangle dividers spaced about six feet apart. It appears that between each divider a single bed stood. It looked like the room held eight students. An old spring and metal frame bed sat alone and added to the wonderment of the past. On one wall there were four built in closets. The old doors were hanging off. You could see shelving and what was left of shelving inside each closet. It looked like two students shared one closet. Students in the 1800’s had a lot less cloths to unpack than in today’s modern world.
Les Robbins from Building Services told me that in 1963-1964 when he was a young boy his church the Trinitarian Congregational was adding on to its structure, so Wheaton College opened its doors to the community and told the congregation that they could have their Sunday school classes in Mary Lyon. Les remembers that the classroom was where the first floor bathrooms are now.
Mary Lyon has gone through a lot of changes over the years and what I wrote today barely scratches the surface.