The University Record, January 28, 1998

The Historical Record

Gordon Hall, a historic landmark in Dexter, is one of the oldest properties owned by the University. Photograph courtesy Bentley Historical Library


By Patricia S. Whitesell

Did you know that one of the oldest properties owned by the University is located in Dexter?

Gordon Hall, built in 184143, is located prominently on the hilltop overlooking the Huron River just southwest of the Village of Dexter, at the intersection of Island Lake and Dexter-Pinckney Roads.

It was built for Samuel W. Dexter who came to Michigan as a land speculator in the 1820s. He founded the village of Dexter, served as chief justice of the Washtenaw County Court, and was an elected U-M Regent. The estate, named for Dexter's mother, Catherine Gordon Dexter, is said to have served as a refuge for slaves on the Underground Railroad.

The home's Greek Revival architecture with Doric portico is considered one of the best examples of this style in the state, likened by some to Monticello. It is architecturally significant because the open space around it has been preserved, thereby retaining the panoramic context in which such a grand home was intended to be presented. The huge house, designed and built by Calvin T. Fillmore (brother of President Millard Fillmore) and Sylvester Newkirk, contained 22 rooms, nine fireplaces, and 55 windows.

Judge Dexter died in 1863, but Mrs. Dexter continued in residence until her death in 1899, at which time it was sold and used as a rental property. In 1938, Katherine Dexter McCormick, a granddaughter and the last surviving ancestor of Judge Dexter, repurchased the estate where she was born in 1875 in order to restore it. She then engaged Prof. Emil Lorch of the College of Architecture to oversee the restoration.

Katherine Dexter married the son of Cyrus McCormick, founder of the International Harvester Co. She later became a legend through her co- founding of the League of Women Voters and her promotion and backing of research that led to the development of the birth control pill, an endeavor for which she received little recognition. She was the first woman to receive a science degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1904.

In March 1950, Gordon Hall and 70 acres of property surrounding it was offered by Mrs. McCormick as a gift to the University, with the understanding that the estate would be preserved as a landmark. Subsequently, Mrs. McCormick donated funds to remodel the Hall for occupancy as apartments for University faculty, and also to construct additional faculty housing units on the property. Regent Frederick C. Matthaei donated 50 shade trees to be planted on the grounds.

University President Alexander Ruthven was one of the first residents of Gordon Hall's new apartments, moving there upon his retirement. Gordon Hall continues to serve as a residential rental property today.

The Historical Record appears monthly. Send suggestions for future topics to the author at Historical_Record@umich.edu.