U-M Deaf to Preservation Appeals

Published In:
Community Observer, Summer 2005,
Summer 2005

Author: Grace Shackman

The asking price is $2 million for a Dexter landmark.

Does anyone want to buy a historic 1843 Greek Revival mansion for $2 million? That's the University of Michigan's asking price for a Dexter landmark that lots of folks would rather see preserved than put on the market.

Gordon Hall needs plenty of interior work, but from the outside it looks much as it did when Samuel Dexter built it on a hill overlooking the town he founded. It has not just sentimental value as a village landmark but historical importance as well. Dexter and his sons were conductors on the Underground Railroad, and there is strong evidence they hid escaping slaves in the basement.

The U-M, though, views the building mainly as a financial asset. The university has owned the home since 1950, when Dexter's granddaughter, Katharine McCormick, donated the house and grounds. She had been working for ten years with Emil Lorch, dean of the U-M's architecture school, to restore the house—yet, puzzlingly, her gift to the U-M included some money to have the inside gutted and turned into four apartments. One of them was subsequently occupied by Alexander Ruthven, retired president of the university.

In November 2000 the U-M regents voted to sell the house. They had asked the county board of commissioners to designate it as historic, preventing any changes to the exterior. But the county went too far for the U-M's taste. Jim Kosteva, the university's director of community relations, lobbied hard but failed to stop the commissioners from including the property's seventy acres in the protected district. The historic designation prevents any development of the surrounding property without permission of the Washtenaw County Historic District Commission.

Kosteva's announcement of the asking price shocked many people at a recent meeting organized by Alice Ralph, a local architect and member of the county historic district commission. Attending were many interested citizens plus representatives from Dexter Village, Scio and Webster townships (the property straddles the boundary between them), the county parks commission, and the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, plus two county commissioners. Kosteva said the university would accept bids from September 1 through November 15. but only cash offers. He held out some slight hope for compromise only by saying the university was not obligated to accept the highest offer.

Ralph is trying to figure a way for the county to acquire Gordon Hall. Paul Cousins, a member of the village council, is hoping that the Dexter Area Historical Society could end up owning it. Both are finding plenty of people who agree with the idea of community ownership, but coming up with the money is a daunting task. The U-M's time frame leaves room for a possible millage vote, but while Cousins says something like 0.1 mills for restoring and maintaining Gordon Hall might pass, he doesn't think it's likely voters would approve a tax measure large enough to buy the building.

What if no one buys the property? Says Cousins, "If the university changes their mind and has a soft spot in their heart and wants to give us Gordon Hall, we'll take it." So far, though, the university has ignored such appeals—despite the widespread interest in saving Gordon Hall and the building's landmark status for Dexter villagers. Joining other community leaders and official bodies in a preservation effort doesn't seem to be on the U-M's agenda.

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: Alice Ralph and Paul Cousins are finding support for community ownership of Gordon Hall.