House Raising

Published In:
Community Observer, Summer 2002,
Summer 2002

Author: Grace Shackman

Dexter citizens aren't waiting for the U-M to decide the fate of Gordon Hall.

The fate of Gordon Hall is on hold as far as its owner, the University of Michigan, is concerned, but not in Dexter, where children and adults are raising money to buy and renovate the house that the town's founder, judge Samuel Dexter, built in 1841. Recently Dexter kindergartners raised almost $900 with bake sales, while second-graders held a contest that brought in about $5,000 in pledges.

Last October the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners designated Gordon Hall and sixty-seven acres around it as a historic district. But those who thought that the vote meant the village can now use the house for a museum were jumping the gun. Historic protection means only that changes to the outside of Gordon Hall or to the grounds have to be approved by the county historic district commission. The commission would certainly reject such egregious changes as condos on the front lawn—but if a new owner wanted to use it as a country estate or a corporate retreat, that would be legal as long as the owners respected the integrity of the property.

No one knows whether the university will try to sell Gordon Hall on the open market or whether it might be willing to give the village favorable sales terms. Diane Brown, a spokesperson for the U-M's office of facilities and operations, says officials have been too busy with other projects. The leases for the four rental apartments in Gordon Hall have expired, so the house is now empty. The university is discussing having someone live there to keep an eye on it and is working to keep up with maintenance, interior painting, and repairing winter damage to the roof.

Village activist Paul Cousins, former owner of Cousins Heritage Inn, met with then-interim U-M president Joe White, whom he knows from catering events at the U-M business school when White was dean. Cousins reports that White listened very sympathetically to his vision of village ownership of Gordon Hall. But the views of new U-M president Mary Coleman about Gordon Hall are unknown.

In 1940 Katharine Dexter McCormick, granddaughter of Samuel Dexter, hired Emil Lorch, dean of the U-M architecture school, to renovate Gordon Hall. But after he had worked on it for ten years, she suddenly gave it to the university, which scooped out the historic interior and divided the building into apartments. No one knows exactly why she made the donation, and it is not clear whether she knew what the U-M was going to do with the building, but the speculation is that she had problems paying estate taxes after her husband died. Connie Osler, Lorch's daughter, recalls, "Dad was devastated when she gave it to the university. He was so mad."

Even if the university were to return the favor and give Gordon Hall to the village, it's not clear how much money would be needed to renovate it for a museum. But Dexter citizens are continuing to work on the project.

—Grace Shackman

Photo Caption: To help save Gordon Hall, Cornerstone Elementary gave the Dexter Historical Society's Gil Campbell nearly $900 in bake sale profits.