Dexter Historical Society
by Doug Marrin – September 3, 2021

Dexter’s historic Copeland Building has been a cornerstone of the community since it was built. The beloved structure has been used for many events and services over the decades and has recently received a facelift as it enters the next phase of its illustrious life—home to The Encore Musical Theatre Company.

The Copeland Building was constructed in 1936 as an addition to the Dexter Union School.

The first Dexter Union School. Photo: DAHS.

The first Dexter Union School was constructed in 1857, on Piety Hill at the corner of Hudson and Ann Arbor streets. Unfortunately, a large crack in the structure brought an early end to its service. The school was torn down, and the second Dexter Union School was constructed in 1887.

The second Dexter Union School as viewed from H Street (now Hudson Street). This is the side of the building to which the Copeland addition would be constructed. Photo: DAHS.

In the early 1930s, the school was overcrowded. In 1935, Senator Royal S. Copeland visited Dexter and was appalled at the conditions he found in his alma mater. The Senator began an initiative to build an addition that would remedy the overcrowding and provide a gymnasium. The cost for the expansion was $94,000, of which $50,000 came by way of a grant from the Public Works Administration.

The Copeland addition was completed in late 1936 and included a new gymnasium/auditorium, home economics classroom, office, additional classrooms, and a new ventilation system. The new building was named for Senator Copeland’s father, Roscoe Copeland, who served as Village President for 35 years, as well as a number of terms on the school board.

The Copeland addition under construction in 1936. The Union School is visible behind the new structure. Photo: DAHS.

The school experienced an influx of students in the early 1950s when the surrounding country schools closed. Space was again an issue. In 1957, a new high school was built on Baker Road, and the second Dexter Union School was closed. In 1961, the old structure was torn down, but the Copeland Building was renovated into an early elementary school.

More renovations occurred in the late 1970s, and in 1980, the building was named the “Copeland Primary Center,” designed for kindergarten and first-grade students. As Dexter’s school district expanded with more construction, the Copeland Building was converted into administrative offices and the Dexter Senior Center. The auditorium continued to be used by school and community groups.

The Copeland Building as it is today. Photo: Doug Marrin.

As Dexter’s schools continued to centralize in one area, by 2019, the administrative offices were moved to the Bates Building in the heart of the campus. Having moved on from the Copeland Building, the school district made plans to sell the building.

Meanwhile, one of Dexter’s many crown jewels, The Encore Musical Theatre Company, had outgrown its building behind Hackney Hardware. The Encore secured the necessary financing and purchased the Copeland Building early in 2020 with plans to turn the structure into an entertainment destination and educational center for the performing arts. Renovations began in September that year.

The Encore has retained the historical character of the building in its renovation. Photo: Doug Marrin.

The Encore has retained the building’s endearing, historical character, giving it a much-needed facelift to the interior. A large lobby with a full bar for pre-glow, intermission, and after-glow times is one of the most notable changes. The auditorium has also been reinvented with new sound, lighting, and flexible seating.

The Encore purchased Copeland from Dexter Schools in 2020 at a price of about $1 million, with a capital campaign underway to raise another $1.5 million for renovations. Photo: Doug Marrin.

Historic buildings often serve as touchstones to our past, reminding us of the character and values of prior generations who passed through the same doorways and walked the same hallways. And as the world continues changing and moving on, something is soothing in the idea that we can adapt but still take the past with us and build upon it, literally and metaphorically.

People love the new energy in the Copeland Building. This is a photo from The Encore’s “Back to Broadway” summer concert series. Photo: Matt Englebert.