Traverse City: new uses for insane asylum

Sunshine, fresh air, beauty as therapy, physical exercise through work: These were crucial components of mental health treatment in the mid 1800s, and Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride of Pennsylvania came up with plans to make this happen throughout the United States.

His sturdy insane asylums were zigzag, two-wing buildings full of windows and cross-ventilation, typically with views of uncluttered and serene settings. Farm work and other tasks would attempt to divert patients’ obsessions with inner demons.

Administrative offices, in the middle of the asylum, separated male and female patients. The most troubled roomed on the lowest floor and were farthest from the building’s center, so their behavior would not interfere with the rehab of others.

Almost all of the nation’s estimated 80 Kirkbride developments for natural healing ( were destroyed as mental health treatment philosophies changed to emphasize in-community care, drug therapy and psychoanalysis.

A big exception is in Traverse City, Mich., where an 1885 structure that is one-quarter mile long used to house 3,500 mental health patients on 1,100 acres. Now Building 50, bit by bit, is being transformed into the Village at Grand Traverse Commons: the area’s largest residential, retail and public gathering spot.

“You can’t get any greener than rehabbing an old building,” says developer Ray Minervini, a Detroit native who moved to Traverse City in the 1980s.

“Detroit used to be a beautiful city,” he says. “I saw a remarkable number of buildings there destroyed through neglect. Europe cherishes its antiquities, but we don’t.”

By 1989, the Traverse City asylum had closed and the last 480 acres were sold to the city and township for $1. The first thought was to demolish the empty buildings, but that generated public uproar.

Ray didn’t like the idea either, and he was part of a panel that solicited and studied alternatives, all of which fell through as the campus continued to deteriorate.

“Water was pouring into the building for years,” so Ray proposed re-shingling and made a $1.5 million personal investment. In return, he got ownership of the structures for $1, and now building rehab proceeds as time and money allow.

So the asylum’s former fire station is a bakery. A building used for potato peeling is a restaurant. A winery (selling by the glass or growler) and coffee roaster occupy the former laundry facility.

On the ground level of Building 50 is the Mercato, an assortment of independently owned boutiques and bistros. Offices occupy the first floor and are topped by three floors of condos, many with waterfront views of Traverse Bay.

At the core of development are 64 acres and 7,000 square feet of the main building. The remaining 416 acres is Traverse City’s biggest parcel of community gardens and preserved parkland with trails for hiking, bicycling and snowshoeing.

The front lawn has turned into the site of farmers’ markets, concerts, festivals and weddings.

“I used all resources available to me … my retirement fund, hocked my house,” Ray says.

He mentions the 2-foot-thick brick walls, 2,000 windows and 14-foot-tall ceilings in Building 50, and thinks it was ahead of its time in several ways.

He says the asylum had electricity 28 years before the rest of Traverse City. Steam turbines produced electricity and heat through underground tunnels until 1950, when replaced by more conventional systems that are now out of date.

“We’ll never build something like this again – it would be too expensive,” Ray says. “But you can see why this building will be here 500 to 1,000 years from now.”

Condos range from 300-square-foot efficiency units to those with multiple bedrooms. Some are rented by the night, week or month. Some of the building’s full-time residents also work in the area and refer to their neighbors as the “Village People” because of the sense of community that accompanies their living arrangement.

“If you’re looking at just the dollar, this is costing us at least twice as much as new construction – $200 to $250 per square foot, compared to $100,” Ray says.

“But we can’t continue to build sprawl, and we’re beginning to realize that sprawl doesn’t work anyway.”

For more about the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, 1200 W. 11th St., Traverse City, Mich.:, 231-941-1900.

What else might motivate you to visit Traverse City, population 15,000 and in western Michigan?

It is near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, described as the state’s biggest sandbox.

It is even closer to the fertile Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas, which is rich with wineries and artisan food shops. Among the best: Black Star Farms, Suttons Bay, which sells its cheese, wine and spirits; Cherry Republic, Glen Arbor, where products with Michigan cherries rule; and The Grocer’s Daughter, Empire, whose chocolatier uses local ingredients in her sweet treats.

Traverse City, especially for its size, supports an impressive array of locally owned shops and restaurants and grooms a shoreline where boaters to joggers gather.

“Fab Fall” lodging packages start as low as $20 per person per night, during midweek. For more:, 800-940-1120.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.