The View from the Hill

Published In:
Community Observer, Spring 2001,
Spring 2001

Author: Grace Shackman

Dexter residents want to save Gordon Hall—and its vista.

The University of Michigan plans to sell both historic Gordon Hall and its surrounding seventy-acre estate, which offers a prized and unobstructed view of the village. Built in 1841, the colonnaded mansion on a hill northwest of town is the only surviving residence of village founder Samuel Dexter. Now local residents are banding together to try to save not only the home but its grounds as well. Future generations of Dexter residents "should be able to get the view from the top of the hill that Judge Dexter could see," contends Paul Cousins, former village council member and founder of Cousins Heritage Inn.

The U-M, which announced its decision to sell Gordon Hall last November, has asked the Washtenaw County Historic District Commission to give the mansion a historical designation before the house goes on the market. However, the request applies only to the building itself and a rectangular area around the house extending 250 feet in front, 100 feet in back, and 75 feet on either side - not to the full acreage of the original property. So while the historic home would be legally protected, its prime view of Dexter would not.

Cousins and other community leaders, including former village president Paul Bishop and Dexter Historical Society president Gil Campbell, hope to raise the funds needed to buy the house and its "viewscape" from the U-M, which has owned the building and its surrounding property since 1950. Their goal is to purchase the mansion and the original property, restore the house, and furnish it as it would have been during Judge Dexter's occupancy, gathering back artifacts dispersed to the Dexter Area Historical Museum and the Washtenaw County Historical Society. In addition to its great educational value, the organizers believe, the house could lure history-minded visitors to Dexter. "It could outshine the bakery as a reason to come here," jokes Bishop.

Gordon Hall, named in honor of Samuel Dexter's mother, Catherine Gordon Dexter, is a magnificent example of Greek Revival architecture. "In the eighteen forties it was one of the places to see in Michigan," Campbell says. Moreover, it was almost certainly a stop on the Underground Railroad—Dexter has been identified as a "conductor," and there is a place in the basement where fugitive slaves may have hidden.

The home was sold after Dexter's widow died in 1899, and it fell into disrepair. In the 1930s U-M architecture dean Emil Lorch and U.S. senator Royal Copeland - a Dexter native - persuaded Dexter's granddaughter, Katharine Dexter McCormick, to buy it back (Community Observer, spring 2000). McCormick paid Lorch to repair and restore the mansion, hoping that the Dexter Women's Study Clubs, which used it for meetings, could take it over. But the clubs could not afford the upkeep, so in 1950 McCormick gave it to the university. Much to Lorch's dismay, the university demolished part of the building and divided the rest into apartments—stripping away much of the elegant interior detail in the process.

According to Bishop, "It would be nice if the U of M would give it back to us; we could use the money [raised for the purchase] to undo what they did." But the village's hope that the house might be sold for a minimal amount will apparently go unfulfilled. The university plans to sell Gordon Hall in the usual bid process. "We have a fiduciary responsibility to the public taxpayer," says Jim Kosteva, U-M director of community relations. "We don't have the ability to offer special deals."

This isn't the first time that the village has mobilized to try to save one of its founder's residences. Dexter built his first home in the village on Huron Street in 1826 and moved to another house on Huron when the railroad was built nearby in the 1830s. In 1939, when his second house was about to be torn down, three Dexter women tried to raise $1,000 to save it but failed. Bishop, Campbell, and Cousins - who face a far greater financial challenge - are hoping the same fate won't overtake what Lorch called "in many ways the most important of all Michigan homes."

—Grace Shackman