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"The Sem," built in 1834, served as the original classroom building for Wheaton Female Seminary and was called Seminary Hall. Its construction was supervised by Laban Morey Wheaton, founder of the Seminary. It was in this structure that the Seminary's first classes met on 22 April 1835, under the aegis of Mary Lyon, pioneer in women's education, and Eunice Caldwell, the first principal. Until 1989 when it became coeducational, Wheaton was the oldest institution for the higher education of women in New England. The Sem has "witnessed" Wheaton College's entire history.
The original design included neo-classical features in its two-story front portico, four simple columns, and low pediment. The columned cupola, topped by a weathervane, gave it a decidedly "schoolhouse" appearance. Its current appearance bears little resemblance to this original design. The portico and cupola are gone. A two-storey sun porch was added to the south side in 1938.
Originally, The Sem stood on Main Street across from the Wheaton homestead, on the site where the north wing of Mary Lyon Hall now stands. The Wheaton family and the college moved this modest structure across Howard Street three times, and it has stood in four different locations. The Sem was used variously, and often simultaneously, as a straw hat factory, tenement, rented meeting hall, laundry, campus post office, infirmary, bookstore, student activity building, dormitory, and residence for faculty and staff.
Its front portico, columns and cupola were probably lost during its first move to Howard Street in 1849. Its second move in 1868 attached it to the back of the Seminary Boarding House (later Old Metcalf Hall), where it served various functions including campus post office and bookstore. As such, it was the most popular spot on campus after morning chapel, when students would rush to collect their mail before their first classes. In 1933, prior to the demolition of Old Metcalf, The Sem was placed in its current location on Howard St. and named by college President J. Edgar Park. This name appears on a small pediment over the front door. The Student War Activities Board (SWAB) used its rooms during World War II for sewing, knitting, rolling bandages, and the like.
The most vivid imprint of The Sem's previous history survives in the upstairs apartment, where four rooms that stand in pairs off a long, narrow hallway still feature transoms over each doorway. In each of these rooms, on either side of the entrance, are two closets, containing deep, built-in shelves meant to serve as dressers for student residents.