The Story of Dexter’s Historic Gordon Hall

Gordon Hall sits on a hill overlooking the City of Dexter, as it has for the past 175 years, an icon of Dexter’s storied history representing the finest of our past, setting the stage for today.

Gordon Hall Days are coming the weekend of June 23-24 when we celebrate Dexter’s founder Samuel Dexter and his famous home and in doing so we celebrate the founding of Dexter, MI, the place we call home. These are our roots.

Samuel W. Dexter is born in 1792, in Boston, in the early days of the United States’ newly won independence from Great Britain. The son of a colonial statesman, Samuel Dexter is born into the politics that forged our country and himself pursues a career in the U.S. Congress and then in the cabinets of U.S. Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

View of Dexter from Gordon Hall in 1890 (see St Joseph’s?)

In 1824, Dexter moves to the then Territory of Michigan and settles in Detroit. A year later he moves west to Washtenaw County where he owns land. Two years later, at age 34, he is appointed Chief Justice of Washtenaw County. In 1830, Judge Dexter maps out a village and his namesake town is born.

Dexter Area Historical Society member, Caryl Burke, took me on a tour of Judge Samuel Dexter’s home, Gordon Hall, earlier this Spring and told me some of the grand manor’s history.

“To entice the railroad to come through his rural village,” Caryl said, “Samuel Dexter gave the railroad company land upon which to build their tracks. The railroad comes through Dexter in 1841, but Judge Dexter doesn’t like the sound of the trains next to his house, now gone, on Huron Street (Classic Pizza, Dexter Cider Mill).”

So that same year,1841, to get away from the noisome trains, Samuel Dexter hires Calvin T. Fillmore, brother of President Millard Fillmore to design a home, Gordon Hall, named for his mother’s maiden name. He picks a location overlooking the village. The home is completed in 1843. On a side note, Fillmore’s own home in the Village of Dexter would become known to us today as Cousin’s Heritage Inn Restaurant, and then Terry B’s, and more recently as The Fillmore Bar and Grill.

View of Dexter in 2007. (See St Joseph’s steeple?)

There has been talk of Gordon Hall being a stop on the Underground Railroad. I asked Caryl about it.

“We don’t have conclusive proof,” she told me. “What we have is a leader of the Underground Railroad in Coldwater, Michigan, being asked twenty years after the Civil War where he sent the slaves. His answer was ‘to Sam Dexter and his sons.’”

“It’s an uncorroborated story,” Caryl says. “But what we do have is a hidden room in the basement that could only be reached by a hatchway in the porch.”

Caryl shows me the basement and hidden room that was discovered during renovation and the spot on the porch where the hidden door would have been located. I’m a believer.

Caryl Burke stands over the spot where a hatchway led to a room closed off to the rest of the basement.

While none of this is conclusive evidence that Gordon Hall was a stop on the Underground Railroad, it strongly suggests the idea. The Underground Railroad was a secret. “Conclusive” evidence is hard to come by.

 

Judge Dexter dies in 1863 and his widow, Millicent, continues to live in Gordon Hall until her death in 1900. After her death, the manor is sold. In 1934 Gordon Hall is officially documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey as a significant American building despite being abandoned and in disrepair.

The home comes back into Judge Dexter’s family when his granddaughter, Katherine Dexter McCormick, purchases it in 1939. The next year she establishes a partnership with the University of Michigan for the restoration of Gordon Hall. But in 1947 to help

The hatchway would lead down into this closed off room discovered during renovation.

resolve some tax issues, she gives the property to U of M who begins to “modernize” the property into apartments for U of M staff, a practice common at the time. Until 2006, these four apartments are rented out to faculty and staff.

 

“In 2006, the Dexter Area Historical Society (DAHS) purchased Gordon Hall from U of M,” Caryl says. “Originally, the University wanted to sell only the two acres which held the house and out buildings and then develop the rest of the property.”

Gordon Hall at the time of the 1934 Historic American Buildings survey.

U of M does sell 15 acres of Samuel Dexter’s land to The United Methodist Retirement Community Inc. for the development of what is now The Cedars Retirement Community. The remaining 68 acres, with Gordon Hall, is then sold to DAHS.

Since the purchase, DAHS has worked hard at fundraising and has paid off the $1.5 million purchase loan. Then, armed with a grant from the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, the Society has methodically begun restoration.

Restoration of Gordon Hall is double-edged. The “modernization” by U of M when renovating the manor into apartments dramatically changed the interior from its original construct. In addition to returning the building to its original form, there is the general dilapidation that comes with time and neglect.

“What is the Historical Society’s goal for Gordon Hall?” I ask Caryl.

“It’s not intended to be a historical tourist site, primarily anyway,” she explains. “The goal of DAHS is to develop Gordon Hall into a historic venue site for parties, weddings, banquets, etc. Once restored, Gordon Hall will be financially self-sustaining. There is a large, unmet demand for historic venues in Washtenaw County.”

The original back porch.

In 2011, the Gordon Hall Rehabilitation Master Plan was completed being based upon the Historic American Buildings Survey drawings from 1934. The estimated price tag for restoring Gordon Hall to its original glory, with some necessary modern amenities, is $4.6 million.

The work is being done as funds allow and the back of Gordon Hall has already been restored back to its original state by removing the balcony that was built in the U of M remodel. Heating and plumbing are high priority projects. Gordon Hall is closed during winter after the DAHS Christmas at the Mansion celebration.

The plan is to restore the interior and exterior of Gordon Hall to its appearance during Judge Dexter’s lifetime, around the time the Civil War as well as adding bathrooms, accessibility, etc. to make it code compliant for group events.

Gordon Hall Days are just ahead.

The back porch after U of M’s remodel.

And speaking of group events, Gordon Hall Days will be held on Saturday and Sunday, June 23-24, 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.

Spend a leisurely day shopping for remarkable antiques and vintage treasures, touring historic Gordon Hall, and enjoying an Antique and Classic Car Show. Kids of all ages will have fun playing old time midway games. Enjoy lunch at the Dexter Lions food wagon, or popcorn, snow cones, and the Dexter Senior Center’s famous homemade pretzels.

On Saturday, look for Colors the Clown and her kid’s magic show. Dexter Dulcimers, the Dexter Community Band, and the Dexter Community Orchestra will provide musical entertainment. The day will culminate in a performance by George Bedard and the Kingpins.

The cost is $5/person and all proceeds support the Dexter Area Historical Society. Location: Gordon Hall, 8311 Island Lake Rd, at the corner of Dexter-Pinckney Rd, Dexter, MI.

For more information call 734-426-2519, or visit www.dexterhistory.org/upcoming-events

The back porch restored by DAHS.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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