Part of the fun when traveling to faraway destinations is learning about the history and culture in the places we visit. Exploring Traverse City, Michigan through the eyes of a tourist is opening my eyes to rich stories about this place called home.
One particularly intriguing part of town is The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The old-world charm and rich history of the former State Psychiatric Hospital have been revitalized into a vibrant community of retail shops, offices, special event venues and residences.
Within walking distance of downtown Traverse City, it’s a wonderful place to visit for shopping, hiking, hanging out with friends, or attending special events. You almost feel transported to a time long ago as you walk the beautiful grounds and hallways.
The story behind the construction of the institution and the surrounding 480 acres of property revolves around a therapeutic movement that flourished in the United States during the nineteenth century. The psychiatric hospital in Traverse City was one of three built in Michigan, and one of nearly two hundred mental hospitals across the country during the same time period. The buildings were designed based on the Kirkbride Plan and a philosophy of moral treatment. The large Victorian style buildings were specifically designed to provide sunlight and fresh air for the patients. According to The Village website, Dr. James Decker Munson, the first superintendent from 1885 to 1924, and others at the time believed that “specially designed and landscaped buildings could heal one of the most frightening of human ailments.” (pg 1, Johnson)
The basement area, inside Building 50, which once contained water mains, heating apparatuses, and a hallway for distributing food is now a lovely restored “Mercato”, Italian for “Marketplace”, full of shops and dining options.
The moral treatment of the patients at the new hospital when it opened in 1885 prohibited the use of restraints. The belief was that providing a pleasant life would help in the patients’ recovery. Due to the lack of state funding, the hospital was forced to become self supportive. To help run the facility, patients were given voluntary work assignments, actively working alongside employees. This also gave them a sense of purpose and was an extension of their therapy. Working on the farm grounds had a dual purpose of therapy along with physical exercise. The farm included livestock, greenhouses, and gardens to provide necessary food and provisions for the residents. Restoration of the old barns in what is now called The Botanic Garden at Historic Barns Park includes a community garden, a visitor center and beautiful old barns available to rent for parties and events. More is planned for the area including an outdoor amphitheater.
As a part of his “beauty is therapy” philosophy, Dr. Munson was actively involved in the planting of a large variety of trees from all over the world on the property. This historic arboretum provides the beautiful park like setting The Village Commons residents and guests enjoy today. The front lawn of Building 50 hosts annual festivals, weddings and private parties throughout the year. At other times it is a quiet place to walk, relax, and enjoy the outdoors.
Behind Building 50 is the area called The Backyard. Located within this backyard is The Piazza, a community gathering area. It’s a great place to grab a coffee, fresh baked goods, or enjoy a meal and glass of wine with friends. The Piazza hosts other special events throughout the year as well as a weekly farmers market.
There is no doubt the beauty in nature is good for the soul, just as they thought back at the height of the “Beauty as Therapy” movement. We visit often to hike the beautiful trails on the property enjoying peaceful walks along quiet streams, amidst the pine trees, and across the meadows with spectacular views of Traverse City. The well groomed trails are great for hiking, jogging, biking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. It’s hard to believe you are still in town while enjoying nature in these peaceful surroundings.
Men and women are no longer required to walk separately along the trails, but if you choose to . . .
And, don’t be surprised if you come upon some interesting hidden places along the trails.
The original concept of patient therapy when the hospital opened in 1885 seems so sensible to me. It’s unfortunate it wasn’t maintainable. Changes in laws and philosophies brought drastic changes to the facility. Eventually patients were treated through electric shock therapy and lobotomies. Legislation was passed that no longer allowed the patients to be involved in work therapy. Finally, once pharmaceuticals were introduced, many patients were released from the facility, leading to the eventual closing of the hospital in 1989.
It’s an interesting story, and the more I learn, the more questions I have. There are tours available to see first hand the processes of restoring this amazing area, as well as learning details of the rich history. I look forward to going on one of these tours and seeing the underground tunnel system. There are books about the history of the hospital available in the gift shops at The Village as well as online through Amazon. A couple that intrigued me are Beauty as Therapy, Northern Michigan Asylum: A History of the Traverse City State Hospital and Traverse City State Hospital. A friend also mentioned the book Father Fred (about the Priest who worked in the hospital chapel), but I have not been able to find it. Does anyone know where I can find this book or have recommendations of others to read?
There are a diverse group of residents adding to the charm of The Village Commons. Recently we were blessed to meet Evelyn, the very first resident, and spend a delightful Sunday afternoon with her. I’m looking forward to sharing more about this inspirational woman in next week’s blog.
Whether you are from the Traverse City area, or just visiting, a trip to The Village Commons is worth it. The community is a vibrant and eclectic mix of old and new. It’s a great place to shop, enjoy a glass of wine or dinner with friends, go for a picnic, hike, bike, or just enjoy nature right in the heart of Traverse City. Being there feels good, even a little therapeutic. Perhaps Dr. Munson’s plan for “Beauty in Therapy” is still reaching out to us from years ago.