Traverse City, Michigan
When a super-sized, no longer wanted building sits empty, there are usually two options – tear it down or reinvent it. In Traverse City, Michigan, they chose to reinvent and reimagine, bringing a happy new life to a sad old building.
The Italianate building looks more like a university than an asylum, but that is how it began life. The asylum opened in 1885 as the third state hospital in Michigan for the mentally ill. It was huge – the main building alone was a quarter mile long. From its inception, the building has followed the “Beauty is Healing” philosophy. The founding medical superintendent was perhaps ahead of his time and embraced a “beauty is healing” philosophy using the concept that the human mind will heal better when surrounded by beautiful buildings, beautiful grounds, and beautiful interiors, as well as humane treatment of people. Rather than the horror stories of asylums found elsewhere, the use of restraints was forbidden, and resident “inmates” were served meals on china dishes in the dining room, artwork filled the walls, fresh flowers adorned tables, and inspirational sayings were posted along hallways. Every patient’s room had a view to the outside where they could look out over the grounds beautifully landscaped as an arboretum, thereby connecting with nature..
The hospital also followed the philosophy that the mind could be healed by gaining a sense of purpose which could be earned working on the farm, with the animals, in the greenhouse, or even learning how to make furniture. All this helped make the facility with its on-site coal burning power plant nearly self-sustaining. In the 1950s and 1960s changes to state laws and mental illness care philosophy brought an end to the facility’s use as a hospital. After a slow decline, the facility was closed in 1988 and it sat vacant for over a decade.
Its closure left many workers unemployed, and a behemoth of a building sitting empty. The redevelopment of the historic structure and the many buildings on the site was a huge undertaking, but one from which we can now all benefit. After registration as a National Historic Site and a lengthy planning process, in 2002 the restoration began.
The site has been converted into a live/work/play facility filled with restaurants, gift shops, bakeries, wineries, breweries, artisans, and multi-generational living facilities. They include senior housing, apartment rentals, condominiums, vacation rentals, event space, as well as over 30 professional businesses calling this place home.
Spend a Day
Come for a visit and you could stop by for a morning pastry and coffee, wander through the farmer’s market, find a treasure at an antique store, attend a reading at the bookshop, stop for lunch at a trattoria, hike around the arboretum to work off lunch, pick up a few gifts at an organic home shop, take a walking tour of the facility or let someone drive you around on a pedal bike tour, play a little bocce ball, then stop for an afternoon wine tasting or have a craft brew.
There is plenty to keep you busy for an entire day with three major parks all part of the 480 acre site. The parks have both paved and unpaved hiking and bicycling trails to explore.
The main building’s front yard hosts a weekly farmer’s market. The “Backyard” is a wonderful place to sit out with a glass of wine or a beer and relax and enjoy the view. In the summer you might find a beer festival, art festival, or an annual bocce ball tournament on the front lawn. In the autumn you will find the trees in the arboretum ablaze with glorious fall colors.
No matter how you spend time at the Grand Traverse Commons, you will appreciate the variety, the creativity, and the preservation of this wonderful place. It is like a city unto itself with something for everyone. Traverse City can be justifiably proud in thinking outside of the box and not just tearing down this beautiful old building. It is now a unique and fabulous place to explore. It had a history to be proud of, and is only just beginning.