This Traverse City village was once an asylum

TRAVERSE CITY — Some developments prefer to hide their roots, but The Village at Grand Traverse Commons has been embracing its history for 20 years.

The creators of this mixed-use neighborhood were aiming for “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,” when they presented the redevelopment concept to the community — a project that would breathe life into the decaying structures of the former Traverse City State Hospital.

Today, visitors can enjoy retail shopping, restaurants, coffee and wine amid “some of the most significant nineteenth-century architecture still left standing in the state of Michigan.”

But 136 years ago, the hallways belonged to the Northern Michigan Asylum, and they were frequented by patients.

An aerial view of The Village at Grand Traverse Commons in autumn. The community was once Traverse City State Hospital, opened as an asylum in 1885.
Courtesy/The Minervini Group

The beginnings of psychological care

The story of Northern Michigan Asylum begins with Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, an influential physician and early adapter of psychological care.

“He devised the concept of these asylums in the very traditional sense,” said Raymond Minervini II, partner at The Minervini Group, which created The Village more than a century later.

“Because they had limited pharmaceutical solutions for mental illnesses, it was all about creating the most pleasing and healthy and safe environment for them. The idea was the beautiful setting would be part of the therapy to help people re-enter society.”

Kirkbride’s design called for large, imposing asylum buildings with ventilation towers. The first psychiatric hospital following this design in Michigan was built in Kalamazoo, followed by a second in Pontiac. The hospitals quickly filled up, leading to the opening of Northern Michigan Asylum in Traverse City in 1885.

“The demand was so great and the hospitals were so successful because, prior to this movement, there wasn’t much formalized care,” Minervini said. “Patients with mental illnesses or birth defects were kept in basements or attics, or sometimes even in shackles. This was a movement to stop treating people like that.”

It was Perry Hannah, today known as the father of Traverse City, who insisted on hosting the state’s third hospital. According to historians, Hannah knew the lumber industry, on which the region depended, would eventually die out.

This before-and-after collage shows a tunnel underneath the former Traverse City State Hospital, a decommissioned psychiatric hospital that now holds The Village at Grand Traverse Commons — among other developments.This before-and-after collage shows a tunnel underneath the former Traverse City State Hospital, a decommissioned psychiatric hospital that now holds The Village at Grand Traverse Commons — among other developments.
Courtesy/The Minervini Group

The hospital’s first superintendent, Dr. James Decker Munson, felt strongly that patients must be comfortable in their surroundings in order to heal. He made an effort to ensure they felt “at home,” forbidding the use of physical restraints like straightjackets and working hard to beautify the grounds.

Meals in the hospital were served in dining rooms with formal dinnerware and white linen tablecloths. Fresh flowers and plants decorated tables and lounging areas. The hallways were lined with artwork and inspirational sayings, and every patient room included a window and exterior view.

Munson also encouraged work therapy, providing opportunities for patients to “gain a sense of purpose” through farming. The hospital farm began with a few milk cows, but grew to include pigs, chickens, meat cows and vegetable fields.

In addition to his commitment to his patients, Munson believed in providing healthcare to the citizens of Traverse City, and started a general hospital in one of the campus buildings in 1915. After his death, a brick medical center was constructed on the northern portion of the grounds. 

The center became a separate entity in the 1950s, and is known today as Munson Medical Center.

This colored postcard shows the south walk at Northern Michigan Asylum, later renamed Traverse City State Hospital. The facility was heavily landscaped under the theory This colored postcard shows the south walk at Northern Michigan Asylum, later renamed Traverse City State Hospital. The facility was heavily landscaped under the theory “beauty is therapy.”
Courtesy/The Minervini Group

Medical advancements and complex growth

In the beginning, Northern Michigan Asylum was largely centralized in “Building 50.” The nearly 400,000-square-foot behemoth held administration in its center and patient wings on either side. 

“For most of the history of the institution, Building 50 was the hub of activity, and it remains the largest and most architecturally significant building of the complex,” reads a passage in Images of America’s “Traverse City State Hospital,” written by Chris Miller.

Over time, the complex expanded and changed. At its peak, it stretched more than 1,100 acres. As patient enrollment grew, cottages were constructed for additional housing, cafeterias and wards. Large college-style buildings came later in the northwest quadrant.

“It wasn’t all built at once,” Minervini said. “It was also very advanced for the time period. Building 50 was the state’s first building with power generation for electric lights. There was central plumbing, central heating, ventilation. This was a lumber town before the hospital. I can’t imagine there were too many other toilets in 1885.”

The southview exterior of the former Traverse City State Hospital's Building 50 after The Minervini Group completed renovations.The southview exterior of the former Traverse City State Hospital’s Building 50 after The Minervini Group completed renovations.
Courtesy/The Minervini Group

Over the hospital’s century of patient care, the facility provided hundreds of jobs to residents and served as a popular training site for nurses.

According to an 1892 list of admissions, the most frequent reasons for entering the asylum included post-birth recovery, epilepsy, ill health and intemperance. Other listed items included “business reversal, religious excitement, seduction and nostalgia,” according to “Traverse City State Hospital.”

Services expanded during viral outbreaks of diseases like polio, tuberculosis and influenza. The center became known for senior care and addiction recovery. It also veered from its “beauty is therapy” focus, with bizarre treatments in the 1920s and 30s that evolved into invasive treatments by the 1940s — including insulin shock, lobotomies and electroshock therapy. 

By March 1947, more than 30,000 electroshock treatments had been administered at the hospital. Wall hangings, houseplants and small tables were destroyed by patients, and phrases of encouragement were painted over with “layer upon layer of institutional lead paint.” 

Between 1885 and 1989, the hospital served more than 50,000 patients. It changed names, first to Traverse City State Hospital, then to Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital. By 1959, the asylum held nearly 3,000 patients across 1.4 million square feet of space.

But in the latter half of the twentieth century, pharmaceutical advancements made in-patient psychiatric facilities obsolete — largely ending invasive treatments and encouraging physicians to treat mental illnesses at home.

This before-and-after collage shows a restored portion of the former Traverse City State Hospital. The space now holds Trattoria Stella, considered one of the finest Italian eateries in the Midwest.This before-and-after collage shows a restored portion of the former Traverse City State Hospital. The space now holds Trattoria Stella, considered one of the finest Italian eateries in the Midwest.
Courtesy/The Minervini Group

“Indeed, for almost a quarter of a century, advocates of deinstitutionalization have successfully argued that it is difficult to get well in a mental hospital,” writes Nancy Tomes in her introduction to “Angels in the Architecture.” 

“Both medical theory and state policy have abandoned the original premise behind the nineteenth-century asylum that a radical break with the outside world and immersion in a tightly ordered institutional milieu could restore sanity.”

By the mid-1980s, 100 beds were sufficient to treat the area’s needs. Farming operations had ceased and the center portion of Building 50 had been deemed a fire hazard and destroyed. The center was rebuilt, but lacked the same luster as its historic counterpart. The hospital was winding down.

In 1989, the facility closed its doors to much community backlash. Hundreds of jobs were lost and dozens of buildings left unoccupied.

“In the months and years following the hospital’s closing, many former patients with continuing mental health problems were found to be homeless, in the jail system, or in inadequate and unaffordable private care,” writes author Heidi Johnson in “Angels in the Architecture,” published in 2001.

“In recent years, groundskeepers have encountered former patients revisiting the abandoned institution and attempting to enter the buildings again, not as vandals, but as people who missed the only place many of them had called ‘home.’”

This before-and-after collage shows a renovated hallway in the former Traverse City State Hospital. Building 50 was vacant for decades before The Minervini Group began renovations to create The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The hallway now holds a variety of shops.This before-and-after collage shows a renovated hallway in the former Traverse City State Hospital. Building 50 was vacant for decades before The Minervini Group began renovations to create The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The hallway now holds a variety of shops.
Courtesy/The Minervini Group

Retail, residences and rebirth

The debate over what would become of the former hospital site began almost immediately.

“When it closed down, the campus was about 480 acres,” Minervini said. “That acreage falls in Traverse City and Garfield Charter Township, so we had two local municipalities negotiating with the state over how to dispose of the property.

“Usually, the state would have to sell the property and get a fair market value for it. But the local units of government couldn’t afford it. There was a long community discussion about what should come next.”

The state and municipalities finally settled on a historic easement to help protect the structures while allowing public access to the grounds for trails, parks and recreation. But the process was just beginning.

“It took years because everybody was trying to figure out what to do with it,” Minervini said. “It’s a beautiful thing to have the gift of these structures and the land, but you have to figure out how to maintain it. The big questions were purpose and function.”

An aerial view of the former Traverse City State Hospital. The decommissioned psychiatric hospital now holds The Village at Grand Traverse Commons — among other developments.An aerial view of the former Traverse City State Hospital. The decommissioned psychiatric hospital now holds The Village at Grand Traverse Commons — among other developments.
Courtesy/The Minervini Group

It was Minervini’s father who advanced the idea of “one-bite-at-a-time” redevelopment and creating the elements of a community.

“His idea started with a desire to see the former structures of the state hospital used,” Minervini said. “They were in an increasing state of decay. We thought it was a beautiful, noble place. 

“I know a lot of people have very mixed feelings about traditional, old psychiatric hospitals, but we thought a very noble intent was served here and these were massive load-bearing masonry structures, so we started the process of getting people interested in living and working here.” 

That was two decades ago. In May 2002, The Minervini Group took possession of Building 50 and immediately began the process of re-roofing the entire building. The reconstruction process began in 2004, and the first residents moved into the community in 2005.

“There were probably 70 or 80 buildings of various sizes when the hospital closed,” Minervini said. “We have 24 of those buildings in The Village of Grand Traverse Commons.”

This before-and-after collage shows one of the residential units in The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The space was once part of Northern Michigan Asylum, later renamed Traverse City State Hospital.This before-and-after collage shows one of the residential units in The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The space was once part of Northern Michigan Asylum, later renamed Traverse City State Hospital.
Courtesy/The Minervini Group

Today, the former asylum is a multigenerational neighborhood within walking distance of downtown Traverse City. The development has 68 apartment units and is also home to Cordia, an all-inclusive residential club for seniors.

Retailers include Silver Fox Jewelry, Crystal Lake Alpaca Boutique, B50 The Village Store, The Haberdashery, Landmark Books and Sporck Tile Art — among others. Refreshments and dining can be enjoyed at Cuppa Joe, The Barrel Room, PepeNero Italian Restaurant, Red Spire Brunch House and Trattoria Stella.

Historic tours are offered throughout the year, including a new Asylum Flashlight Tour, a Twilight Tour, a Tripod Photography Tour and the standard Guided Historic Walking Tour. 

The new 90-minute Asylum Flashlight Tour explores one of the complex’s most popular cottages from attic to basement with stories from the building’s past through the dim light of flashlights. The tour ends with a walk through the steam tunnels.

The standard 120-minute Guided Historic Walking Tour centers on Munson’s theory on patient care and former uses of the structures on the complex, wandering through an unrenovated historic building and a brick steam tunnel built in 1883.

“People who visit us should have an interest in exploring,” Minervini said. “Wear good walking shoes and bring your curiosity, because the people and businesses here give this historic place life.”

— Information and media for this article was compiled, in part, by The Minervini Group; “Traverse City State Hospital,” by Chris Miller; and “Angels in the Architecture,” by Heidi Johnson. Contact reporter Cassandra Lybrink at [email protected]

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