It’s a chilly autumn night with a mist of rain falling on rustling dying leaves as the tour guide opens a creaky metal door that seems out of place in the middle of what appears to be an insignificant patch of grass.
Holding our flashlights, we enter with a group of 18 others.
The tour guide’s assistant bangs the door shut behind us and with that, we are at the top of a stairway leading to a series of underground tunnels built in 1883.
The brick-lined tunnels are under the former Traverse City State Hospital, located in the northwest part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula (a relatively short distance from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, see map at bottom of story).
Now home to The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, the former hospital is an excellent “off the beaten path” stop for RVers and non-RVers alike.
That’s because there is the opportunity to not only take in a fascinating historic tour that includes the tunnels, but also excellent shopping and dining options — all with reminders aplenty of the site’s former use.
So about that former use:
The Traverse City State Hospital is a decommissioned psychiatric hospital that has been known as the Northern Michigan Asylum and the Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1985. The entire site is about 500 acres, though the Grand Traverse Commons essentially encompasses a fraction of the property.
Northern Michigan Asylum was established in 1881 as the demand grew in Michigan for a third psychiatric hospital (others had already been established in Kalamazoo and Pontiac). Under the supervision of prominent architect Gordon W. Lloyd, the first building, known as Building 50, was constructed in Victorian-Italianate style according to the Kirkbride Plan. The hospital opened in 1885 with 43 residents.
Under James Decker Munson, a doctor and the first superintendent from 1885 to 1924, the institution expanded. Twelve housing cottages and two infirmaries were built between 1887 and 1903 to meet the specific needs of male and female patients. The institution became the city’s largest employer and contributed to its growth. In the 1930s three more large college-like buildings were constructed.
Long before the advent of drug therapy in the 1950s, Munson was a firm believer in the “beauty is therapy” philosophy. Patients were treated through kindness, comfort, pleasure, and beautiful flowers provided year-round by the asylum’s own greenhouses and the variety of trees planted on the grounds. Restraints, like the straitjacket, were reportedly forbidden. Also, as part of the “work is therapy” philosophy, the asylum provided opportunities for patients to gain a sense of purpose through farming, furniture construction, fruit canning, and other trades that kept the institution fully self-sufficient. The asylum farm began in 1885 with the purchase of some milk cows and within a decade grew to include pigs, chickens, milk and meat cows, and many vegetable fields. In the 1910s-30s, the farm was home to a world champion milk cow that was actually named Traverse Colantha Walker. Her grave is at the end of the dirt trail between the farm and the asylum.
While the hospital was established for the care of the mentally ill, its use expanded during outbreaks of tuberculosis, typhoid, diphtheria, influenza, and polio. It also cared for the elderly, served as a rehab for drug addicts, and was used to train nurses.
However, changes in the law and mental health care philosophies brought on the decline of the institution. The farm on the grounds closed in the 1950s, with most of its buildings demolished in the mid-1970s. In 1963, the main 1885 center wing of Building 50 was destroyed because it was deemed a fire hazard and a new modern building was put up in its place. Use of the hospital slowly declined, and it was closed in 1989, with a loss of over 200 jobs to the local economy.
But it’s made a kind of comeback that makes it a great destination for tourists.
That’s because around 2000, a company called The Minervini Group essentially began the process of acquiring and redeveloping a large chunk of the property.
Today, the first floor of the main building – Building 50 — houses more than 20 boutique-style shops, coffee shops, and restaurants in a section called Mercato Shops & Dining. There’s Landmark Books, Silver Fox Jewelry, Vintage Du Jour, ChristmasTide and the upscale Italian restaurant Trattoria Stella, just to name a few. They’re all open to the public and there isn’t any kind of fee to walk right in and explore.
In addition, some of the other buildings on the property house bakeries, coffee shops, upscale residential units and more.
All along the hallways of Building 50 (where most of the shops and dining is located) are reminders of the building’s past. Of course, there is the architecture that has been largely unchanged. There are old photos and other informational displays that explain the hospital’s history. There’s an old wooden wheelchair among knick-knacks for sale. The B50 Village Store has an antique EEG machine next to a cooler of soda pop.
But to truly appreciate the history, try fitting in a tour.
Two types of tours are offered. (Note that they are very strict about no video or audio recordings…pictures are welcome and encouraged.) One tour guide said more than 15,000 will take the tour in 2019. Tickets do sell out so be sure to check the website in advance of your visit.
The “Guided Historic Walking Tour” is offered during the day. The two-hour tour delves into the hospital’s history (treatments offered and how buildings were used), purpose of the architecture, and more. It costs $25 each and the money goes to sustain operations.
The “Twilight Tour” is offered at night. It’s the tour we took and it cost $35 each. (Both tours include about one mile of walking and they are not wheelchair accessible.) You do need a flashlight. It’s basically the same tour but literally darker and hence, the best of the two tours for the more adventurous.
Both tours include a stop in the tunnels constructed in the late 1800s — a fascinating design that was intended to take fresh air in from the outside, circulate in the hospital, and force out the “old air” through the beautiful spires that still can be seen on the roof.
Both tours also include some time in an unrenovated historic building. The building is one of the large cottages that once was home to the male patients identified as the most disturbed. During our tour, we were given a relatively large amount of time to explore a large chunk of the building with our flashlights. It was fascinating to stumble upon old sinks, showers, tiling, and other details of days long gone.
I won’t spoil some of the stories that the guides share, but there are some real interesting anecdotal tales that have been passed down from generation to generation. If you’re lucky, you might even hear the story about how it was one of the first building’s in the state of Michigan to have electricity.
Of course, the guides are adamant about making sure visitors understand this isn’t a “ghost tour” or “haunted house”-type deal. They leave that up to people on the Internet.
However, when you’re there in-person, it’s hard not to feel something. I suppose what exactly that feeling is will be up to each individual who passes through the doors of this old asylum in Michigan.