College Archives Unveil ML’s Storied History

1925 Postcard of Mary Lyon school. Courtesy of the Phoenix, uploaded 04/2015.

Located a fifteen-minute walk away from campus, Mary Lyon dormitory does not even appear on the campus map. It’s located in a residential neighborhood, and many Swarthmore students who have not lived in Mary Lyon have no idea where it’s situated. To further add to its unusualness, it looks less like a traditional dorm and more like an old-fashioned English cottage. It has long been a Swarthmore dorm with a distinct reputation; however, most Swatties do not know the true history behind the dorm.

It’s clear from looking at the dorm just how old the building actually is. The building is over 100 years old and was built around the time the college was founded. The question remains to a lot of students: why did a brand new college build a dorm so far away from campus?

However, Isaiah Thomas, director of residential communities at Swarthmore, feels that ML’s location leads to a better sense of community within the dorm.

Mary Lyon is one of my favorite dorms on campus for a variety of reasons,” said Thomas. “In the four and a half years that I’ve been at Swarthmore, I have been always impressed by ML’s strong sense of community. As ML has a lot of first-year students, residents are eager to connect with each other … Additionally, the residential peer leaders in the community provide excellent programmatic opportunities to help residents thrive both socially and academically.”

Some students feel similarly positive about ML. One resident, Janet Barkdoll ’21, feels at home there because of family connections and its seclusion.

“I knew ML was going to be off campus and I knew that it had a reputation, but I was excited about it because my mom lived in ML when she went to Swarthmore,” said Barkdoll. “I really like living in a residential area because it means I get to leave campus. It feels like I get to go home and it’s nice to have that space and feel like I’m living in a house.”

Though most students would assume that ML stands for Mary Lyon, there is a stone sign outside the dorm that reads “Mary Leavitt”. When looking at the stickers that label the building’s front entrance, students can see the label “ML-4” implying other Mary Lyon buildings.

Mary Lyon was originally the name of a girls’ boarding school that consisted of five buildings. Three of the buildings were converted from houses that the school purchased and the other two buildings were built new in 1917 for the founding of the Mary Lyon School, located near the intersection of Harvard Ave and Yale Ave. The buildings were each individually named Wildcliff, Hadley Miller Crist, Seven Gables, Mary Leavitt, and Hillcrest and were respectively known as ML-1, ML-2, ML-3, ML-4, and ML-5.

In addition to the buildings, Mary Lyon School also owned a golf course, a boathouse, and riding trails for its students to enjoy. However, the school later moved to a new location and rented out its buildings to the Navy, which used it as a rehabilitation center during WWII.

In 1942, the school closed. ML buildings remained empty for several years until Swarthmore College first leased them in 1946 and later purchased them in 1948.

Over the years the buildings have served as dormitories, classrooms, and administrative offices. ML-3 was a 30 member boys-only dormitory and in 1970, ML-4 became the first co-ed dorm on campus. Peter Svirsky ’56, who roomed in ML-4 his first year and in ML-3 when he was a sophomore, described ML-4 in 1952 as “being old and drab … but with a friendly atmosphere.”

Svirsky goes on to describe the ML-4 politics as more liberal than other dorms and that getting to main campus was often difficult, particularly during the winter. Svirsky got a scooter to help make getting to campus easier.

“The dash to Parrish for breakfast took just a few minutes [with the scooter] — and further time could be shaved off by sneaking behind the old library and driving up the lawn,” wrote Svirsky.

However, most of these buildings do not remain on campus today. Hillcrest or ML-5 was torn down in 1970. Hadley Miller Crist or ML-2 burned down in a massive fire in 1982, and shortly thereafter ML-3 or Seven Gables was demolished. ML-4 remains today as the current “Mary Lyon” dorm and Wildcliff or ML-1, about 500 feet away, is used today as apartment style housing for faculty.

According to Sarah Solomon ’19, who has lived in Mary Lyon for three years and is a resident for ML first floor this year,  did not learn much about Mary Lyon history during her time living there.

“I don’t know much about the history, I believe it was a school at one point. It might have been a hospital. I know that it’s 101 years old, that’s it,” said Solomon.

Joe Scott ’22, another resident of Mary Lyon, believes that its history and the history of other buildings should be more accessible to students.

“I know a little about ML history, but I do wish I knew more. The college could do a feature each month of buildings on campus, especially dormitories,” said Scott.

According to Thomas, ML will remain an important part of student housing. He also stated that the college has no future plans to decommission any of its dorms or to build new ones.

“Juniors and seniors occupy the majority of singles in our residential communities. After the senior and junior housing lotteries, there exist some vacant singles in Mary Lyon, which allows us to offer these spaces to rising sophomores who strongly prefer to live in a single,” said Thomas. He added,“there are no plans in the immediate future for any new halls to be created or taken offline.”

For more information on the history of Mary Lyon or to see pictures of what the other buildings look like, students can visit the Friends Historical Library located on the first floor of McCabe.


  1. As a former resident of ML, I was interested to learn that the Miller-Crist building was also used by Penn State in the late 1940’s ( and as the headquarters for the US Army 24th Antiaircraft Artillery Group in the 1950’s ( It is hard to imagine today’s Swarthmore College renting space to an Antiaircraft Artillery Group.

  2. The Miller Crist building later became Harvard Avenue School, a special education school that I attended from 1967 to 1969. Years later, there was a Harvard Avenue program at the Hillcrest Elementary School here in the Upper Darby School District. I don’t know when Harvard Avenue School closed as well as when the program was shifted to the Upper Darby School District.

  3. I went there to as a 4th grader to build confidence only to be held back and put a grade behind ??? All my friends were now in 5th grade and i was still in fourth. Not sure about all that? any insight on the structured learning process there would help me better understand . If anybody has any info that would by interesting!

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