Touring The Insane Asylum

Touring the The Traverse City Commons.  Photo by Grace Grogan

Touring the The Traverse City Commons. Photo by Grace Grogan

This past weekend I toured a beautiful, spacious, historical sight located in Traverse City, Michigan.  When I was growing up the Northern Michigan Asylum / Traverse City State Hospital was still operational.  Lack of funding eventually closed the facility and those remaining patients were turned out and onto the streets with nowhere to go, nowhere to live.

The 63-acre site and its buildings of beautiful architecture deteriorated and were almost destroyed.  Word got out and those desirous of preserving such a beautiful historical location stepped in and renovations continue today.  Now called The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, it is one of the largest historic preservation and adaptive reuse developments in the country.

The eateries and shops of The Commons.  Photo by Grace Grogan, copyright 2015.

The eateries and shops of The Commons. Photo by Grace Grogan, copyright 2015.

Former historic buildings have been transformed into an indoor marketplace with a variety of gift shops, professional services, artwork, offices, eateries, condos, and a restaurant.   The location is alive with activity.  Outside there are walkways and lawns to explore on 480 aces of preserved land.  The restoration of historic barns and a botanical garden are underway.

If you really want to learn about the history of this asylum for the mentally ill, take a guided tour.  This two hour tour takes you into buildings that are in the process of being renovated and provides you with a vast amount of information regarding the lifestyle of those in residence there, the way they were treated, and how innovative this facility really was.

The underground tunnels.  Photo by Grace Grogan, Copyright 2015

The underground tunnels. Photo by Grace Grogan, Copyright 2015

Our tour guide was very informative with a a great personality and sense of humor that was constantly wound into his presentation.  You know you are in good hands when before the tour begins he announces that people should use the restroom and then says “sorry, its the mom in me”.  The tour is two hours of walking, both inside and out.

Visiting patient rooms.  Photo by Grace Grogan, copyright 2015

Visiting patient rooms. Photo by Grace Grogan, copyright 2015

The information provided is interesting and informative.  Not only about the architecture and design of the buildings themselves, but also about Dr. Munson, who designed the facility, and his “Beauty is Therapy” theory on providing treatment for the patients.  The facility was very innovative in that it treated patients as if they were thinking and feeling humans, not something to be thrown away.  He gave them incentive and pride by providing them with jobs on the facility.  Working in the kitchen, creating tile, woodworking, working on the dairy farm, and more.  Residents enjoyed their lifestyle and took pride in their “home”, which is what the facility was to them.  Furnishings were luxurious and comfortable, dining was on the equivalent of a fine restaurant with table clothes, fine china, and fresh flower center pieces.

Touring the Traverse City Commons.  Photo by Grace Grogan, copyright 2015.

Touring the Traverse City Commons. Photo by Grace Grogan, copyright 2015.

The tour includes a short period of walking outside in which you learn about some of the buildings before proceeding inside.  You will enter an non-renovated historic building, a renovation in process, and learn about the purpose in the way the architecture was designed, how the patients were housed, and then finish the tour with a walk through a brick steam tunnel built in 1883 and a visit to an area of The Commons where offices are located.

Photo by Grace Grogan

Photo by Grace Grogan

Once the tour is complete make sure you visit a few of the shops and eateries.  Books, gifts, ornaments, T-shirts and more await the shopper.  I purchased three books while there, Traverse City State Hospital is a pictorial history, Beauty in Therapy is a memoir, and Training School for Nurses is a guide of the training that nurses underwent to work at the Insane Asylum.  I look forward to reading and learning more about this unique place.



Filed under Michigan, travel

6 responses to “Touring The Insane Asylum

  1. Very insightful and the tunnels looks scary too!


    • The tunnels were not scary on the tour, but when the tour guide turned out the lights they were very dark and ironically people like me with good cameras could not get them to fire to take a photo — the people with cell phones got the shots!


  2. I enjoyed reading this and it’s very timely for me. Close to where I live in Portsmouth, UK, an old Victorian psychiatric hospital – which has been substantially renovated and modernised – is being sold off for conversion into apartments and offices. The grounds are a haven for foxes, birds and plant-life and many of us who live nearby enjoy walking through the grounds – I walk my dog through there most days. Hopefully, it’ll be looked after as well as the one you visited has been.


  3. It sounds like a wonderful place Libby, and hopefully the renovation does bring it to the level of the one here in Michigan that I visited. The history and architecture were amazing. If you get information on how the patients were cared for or treated at the one there in the UK it can be very insightful. Treatment of the insane has drastically improved over the past few decades, and I would assume that is a change that has taken place world-wide, not just here in the U.S.


  4. I visited one here in Ontario, Canada. They are making the upgrade to a state-of-the-art facility. The old one was not kept up. I have wanted to write a blog post about these places, and have been doing a lot of reading, but there’s just so much to say.
    Enjoyed reading this though.


    • Thank you. The history and method of treatment is both interesting and shocking. I will certainly partake in tours of other facilities if the opportunity arises. Perhaps you should consider writing a blog about the difference between the old and new facility in Ontario, as well as the modern approach to those with mental issues v. the old way of thinking/treatment.


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