Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital

Established in 1881, Northern Michigan Asylum (Traverse City State Hospital) became the third psychiatric hospital in Michigan. Kalamazoo state Hospital (1859) and Pontiac State Hospital (1873) were becoming overcrowded and a third facility was needed. Perry Hannah, a lumber baron from Traverse City used his political influence to secure Traverse City as the location for the new hospital. Building 50 was the first building built and constructed according to the Kirkbride Plan in Victorian-Italianate style.

Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, a physician and early adapter of psychological care believed that a beautiful setting would be a vital part of therapy in helping people re-enter society. With limited drug options, care was not formalized, and therapy options were almost non-existent. Patients with birth defects or mental illnesses were often hidden away in basements or attics. They did not receive much social interaction. Dr. Kirkbride’s plan was to stop treating people like that and bring them into more peaceful and pleasing surroundings.

Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital

Traverse City State HospitalThe facility opened in 1885 with 43 residents growing to almost 3,000 by 1959. The hospital served 39 counties, including the Upper Peninsula. After opening there was demand for additional patient rooms. In the 1890’s cottages were constructed to serve the increasing patient population.

Twelve housing cottages and two infirmaries were built. These were to meet specific needs of male and female patients. The cottages to the south were for men and the cottages to the north were for women. Cottages 19 and 20 were patient infirmaries for patients recovering from surgery or contagious disease. The hospital eventually grew to 1.4 million square feet of space.

The most frequent reasons for entering the hospital included intemperance, ill health, post birth recovery, epilepsy. According to records at the hospital other reasons were business reversal, religious excitement, seduction, and nostalgia.

During outbreaks of tuberculosis, typhoid, diphtheria, influenza, and polio the hospital’s use was expanded to care for these patients. It was also used to train nursers, rehab for drug addicts and caring for the elderly.

Dr. Munson

Dr. James Decker Munson was the first Superintendent, serving from 1885 – 1924. Under Dr. Munson’s leadership the institution became the city’s largest employer.

Dr. Munson believed in the “beauty is therapy” and “work is therapy” philosophy. Patients at the hospital were treated with kindness and were well cared for. Restraints such as straitjackets were forbidden. Fresh flowers that were grown by patients in the hospital’s greenhouses were in abundance in patient area.

After Dr. Munson retired the James Decker Munson Hospital was established in 1926 on the grounds to honor him. The Hospital was operated by the state into the 1950s. A Portrait of Dr. Munson hangs inside the main lobby of what is now Munson Medical Center.

Learning Trades

The hospital was fully self-sufficient by providing the opportunity for patients to learn a trade and feel a sense of worth. Farming, furniture construction, fruit canning, and other trades were offered jobs for patients.

With the purchase of some dairy cows, the farm was started in 1885. It grew to include chickens, pigs, meat cows and many vegetable gardens in the following decade. In the early 1910’s-1930’ Colantha Walker was a world champion milk cow that lived on the farm. When she died, she was buried on the farm. Her grave is at the southern end of the hospital property. Near the Historic Barns Park is her gravesite.

Mental Health Industry Changing

In the 20’s and 30’s the hospital started moving from the “beauty is therapy” philosophy. By the 40’s invasive treatments including insulin shock, lobotomies and electroshock therapy were becoming standard part of patient’s treatment. By the late 40’s more than 30,000 electroshock treatments had been given by the hospital.

With the more invasive and violent treatment came a more combative patient population. Wall hangings, houseplants and small tables were being destroyed. The words of encouragement on the hospital walls were painted over with layers of lead paint.

The Hospital Closes

Also, in the 50’s with changes in the law and mental health care philosophies the institution started declining. The Farm closed in the 50’s and most of its buildings demolished in the 70’s. In 1963, Building 50’s main 1885 center wing was. The building was deemed a fire hazard and a new building was built in its place.

The hospital continued to decline and was closed in 1989, over 200 jobs were lost. The hospital had served over 50,000 patients. During that time, the hospital changed names several times, but most still refer to it as “The State Hospital.”

What to do with the Property?

The property had been split by then between Munson Hospital, Garfield Township, and others. The remaining buildings stood vacant for a decade. There was a lot of debate during that time of the best plans for reuse of the hospital grounds. The state transferred the property to the Grand Traverse Commons Redevelopment Corporation in 1993. The buildings with less historic value were demolished.

Many ideas for the redevelopment were proposed but nothing was ever acted on until 2000. The Minervini Group secured an agreement to renovate the property. They bought the property for $1 but have put over $60 million into renovation/restoration of the buildings and grounds.

Grand Traverse Commons

Grand Traverse Commons MapThe area is now known as The Village at Grand Traverse Commons and is home to condominiums, apartments, retail shops, restaurants, offices, senior living, event space and more.

Kirkbride Hall is available for events. There are also luxurious accommodations for up to 10 in the Kirkbride Suite. Located in the 1885 Chapel Building, you will take a private elevator to a full furnished condominium. This 2700 square foot, 3 bedroom each with private bath is the perfect retreat for your stay in Traverse City. Plus, the perfect opportunity to explore the property.

There are still many buildings vacant and the infamous tunnels that connected all the buildings and were part of the state-of-the-art ventilation system left to explore. You can explore the retail area and most of the grounds on your own, but to see the best part historical tours are offered. Having been on these tours several times, I highly recommend you take one of the tours. Tickets are available at the B50 The Village Store in the Mercato where you will also find artifacts from the property. Below are pictures from one of the tours I have taken.

Many discoveries have been made during the restorations. One of the exciting ones was in the dining hall that is attached to Cottage 40 (a men’s cottage). There are two small cut outs on the wall where a discovery of a movie list written on the bricks. The two holes in the walls were a projection room. The space could seat up to 400 people and was used for meals and movies.

Historic Barn Park

The 25 acres Botanic Garden at Historic Barn Park is also available to visit. The property is owned by Garfield Township Parks and Recreation. The Visitor Center is open April – October staffed by volunteers. You can choose a docent led tour (available April – October), or year round a self-guided audio tour. There are also programs and events in which you can participate. Event space is available for weddings and other events.

Nature Area

The trails at the Botanic Garden connect to the trails behind the State Hospital grounds. The 140-acre  Grand Traverse Commons Natural Area is home to miles of unpaved trails most named and color coded. I love these trails and area a favorite of mine because you decided how long of a walk you take by choosing the various trails or walking them all! Hiking, biking, nature watching, and cross-country skiing are enjoyed at this park. Dogs are required to be on leashes.

There are hills, streams, meadows, and wetlands. You will find a man-made structure from 1894. The reservoir from the Traverse City State hospital is on this network of trails. The concrete structure is covered in brightly colored graffiti, it stands out against the natural surroundings. You may also find a downed tree that has been painted many times. Known as the Hippie Tree, folklore says if you enter it exactly right it is a portal to hell. As you can see in the picture I stood in the center and am still here to tell you about it. 😊 Traverse City State Hospital Trails

There is a lot to do and see at the old Traverse State Hospital. It is truly a wonderful place to visit repeatedly. I discover something new with each visit. You will never get bored visiting the Commons and the Barn.

Historical Marker Information

ID: #S573C

Era: Industry and Invention (1875-1915)

Registered: 1985

Erected: 1985

Location: Division & Eleventh, Traverse City –

GPS Coordinates: Lat: 44.75514400 / Long: -85.63598100

Description: The Northern Michigan Asylum (now the Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital) was organized in 1881. It opened on November 30, 1885, with forty-three residents. Dr. J. D. Munson was the facility’s superintendent for its first thirty-nine years. The original buildings served five hundred residents. By 1959 the facility had 1.4 million square feet of floor space and housed 2,956 residents. The institution’s farms and its processing and manufacturing facilities covered over a thousand acres and made it nearly self-sufficient. Between 1885 and 1985 it served over fifty thousand residents. After 1960, with advances in treatment and community services, the need for inpatient facilities declined. In 1985, 150 beds served the area’s acute and intensive psychiatric needs.

Learn more about the rich history of the Northwest Lower Peninsula.