The University of Michigan is moving ahead with plans to sell a 162-year-old mansion that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and once hosted two U.S. presidents and many fugitive slaves.
The university has owned Gordon Hall, a white mansion on a 67-acre site that overlaps Washtenaw County’s Webster and Scio townships, since 1950. The school has been considering selling it for many years.
The site is in a rapidly growing area and is attractive to developers. It is worth about $2 million, said university spokesman Jim Kosteva. The university was closing a sealed bidding process for the property this week.
While the school does not have to take the highest bid, it has a responsibility to the public to be financially responsible, Kosteva told the Detroit Free Press. He said the university wants to sell the land and the house together and use the money for scholarships.
The 9,900-square-foot mansion, with its 22 rooms and numerous porches, was built in 1843 by Judge Samuel Dexter and is considered one of the most significant examples of Greek Revival architecture in the state.
Dexter was the first chief justice of Washtenaw County in 1827 and planned the nearby village of Dexter in 1830.
At various times, Dexter and wife Millisent entertained Presidents James Polk and James Buchanan at the home.
The Dexters also gave shelter to more desperate guests, escaped slaves seeking a path to freedom.
“Slaves frequently came up from Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio. Station masters (including the judge) put them on wagons, covered with hay, and at night they were sent to Canada,” Jean Ledwith King, an advocate for preserving Gordon Hall, told The Ann Arbor News. She said its destruction would “be a cultural disaster.”
Historians say the slaves on what was known as the Underground Railroad entered through a trap door on the mansion’s verandah and hid in secret basement rooms.
For at least five years, the Dexter Area Historical Society has been trying to raise money to buy the site and restore the mansion. It joined with county commissioners to form the Save Gordon Hall committee, which was submitting a bid of more than $1 million for the property.
“We’re not the high bid, but we will make a reasonable bid to take care of the university’s fiduciary responsibility,” said committee co-chairman Paul Bishop. “We think we have a great plan to go forward.”
— Associated Press
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