Exploring an Asylum
When you think of an asylum for the mentally ill, you might think of old buildings with tall, decorative spires; wide hallways with checker-board floors; and of course, the residents who spent their time there.
All of this existed and continues to exist today at the former Northern Michigan Asylum, which then was called the Traverse City State Hospital, and what is known today as the Village at Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City, Mich.
Growing up, the State Hospital as we called it—my mom completed a nursing internship there—was the source of all kinds of stories and gossip. When it closed in 1989, all of the patients were forced out; this was a major contributor to the large homeless population in the area. Rumors abounded about ghosts and supernatural happenings. The old State Hospital has always been a structure that loomed larger than it’s physical presence already was.
Whenever possible I’d run up to a building on the property and look in as many windows as possible. It was an eerie sight to see no people but to see what remained such as tables, supplies and wheelchairs.
Some quick facts: The main building, Building 50—300,000 square feet and approximately a quarter mile long—was completed in under three years before opening in 1885. After the main building, numerous outbuildings, barns, a power plant and other structures were added.
The asylum was built according to the Kirkbride Plan—a tall central buildings with symmetrical sides. The attention to detail in craftsmanship and aesthetics is nothing short of unbelievable. Air grates were beautifully designed, befitting of a Rockefeller mansion rather than a hospital. Walls had rounded corners so patients wouldn’t injure themselves and ceilings were high so the spaces didn’t feel confining.
The original superintendent, Dr. James Munson, believed in therapy through beauty. The large grounds had, and continues to have, one of the most diverse populations of trees around.
The fact that the buildings are still standing is a testament to the construction quality.
An Asylum Tour
Yesterday, we were able to tour some of the cottages, buildings and Building 50. Once we reserved our tickets and signed a wavier—in case the asbestos, lead paint or paranormal presences got the best of us—we were good to go.
A number of the buildings remain unrenovated so to step in them is like taking a trip back into another time and dimension. Water has taken its toll on a lot of the exteriors and interiors; but, surprisingly, a lot of the rooms and buildings are in tact. Floors are straight and walls look like they could still have art hung on them. The lead paint everywhere is cracked in the best of ways; the crackling is the look that people try to duplicate these days.
It was a solemn experience to walk into rooms once lived in by people who had to stay there permanently or at the least, extended periods of time. Each patient room had a window and the farther toward the outside ends of Building 50 a patient was, the more mentally unstable they were.
In the attics of some buildings on the property, there were bricks that were signed by workers. Some bricks were simply signed and dated while other bricks explained a specific task that was completed, such as building a roof.
A network of tunnels that carried steam to the buildings is able to be accessed even today.
After being acquired by the Minervini Group, the old State Hospital has taken on a new life and is being used for living spaces, office spaces, shops and restaurants. Those walls, floors and ceilings do talk though and they forever remind the present of the purpose the building had in its past.