History of the Northern Michigan Asylum

Pure Genius – PART 3 – Restore, Repurpose, Reuse

Researched and Written by KAREN RIESER
Photos from The Village at Grand Traverse Commons

It may have been an overly zealous tour guide who referred to the restoration projects of the Northern Michigan Asylum (NMA) grounds as the largest mixed-use project in the Western Hemisphere; however, it certainly is the largest in the nation. As I toured the original grounds, I understood his enthusiasm.

You may recall that the NMA began with a four-hundred-acre farm purchase. Over the years, NMA continued to buy surrounding farmland. Perry Hannah also donated Forty-three acres of land. In the end, the facility had acquired a massive amount of acreage. 

How is this acreage being used today?

Photo from https://www.thevillagetc.com/

The former NMA grounds are now the home of state offices, a boat storage business, a police station, a daycare, an art center, the intermediate school district offices, a psychological counseling service, a hospitality house, two large grocery stores, the junior high sports fields, a regional medical hospital, the Greenspire School, multiple nature trails, a Veterans Park, the Historic Barns Park – The Botanic Gardens, and The Village at the Grand Traverse Commons. The future may bring more opportunities to this space.

When I think of the former Northern Michigan Asylum, I think of The Village at the Grand Traverse Commons. The village sits on sixty-three acres of land and is composed of the remaining original structures of the asylum. I feel, as do many others, that the foresight of the citizens of Traverse City, the immense imagination of the Minervini Group, and the craftsmen’s energy and skills have resulted in an environment that can only be described as “Pure Genius”.

One of the creators of this space is Ray Minervini. Ray moved to Traverse City from Detroit in the early 1990s. As a resident, builder, and architectural renovator, the NMA grounds drew his attention. In the late 1990s, Mr. Minervini, along with other developers, toured the buildings. After the tour, he felt the buildings could be restored. 

The Village At Grand Traverse Commons displaying the Mercato sign. Courtesy of thevillagetc.com

What to do?

When taking a class through Northwestern Michigan College, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (the title to the best of my recollection) taught by Mr. Minervini, we toured the facility. Ray shared how he had come up with the idea of using a ‘village concept’. When traveling in Italy, Ray observed the configuration of the small Italian community or village. There was a central village piazza where community members could gather, play bocce ball, and hold regional festivals. The piazza was surrounded by markets, churches, housing, and recreational areas. He felt a recreation of the Italian village would suit the NMA grounds.

In July of 2000, Ray and the Minervini Group began negotiating with the Grand Traverse Redevelopment Corporation concerning the redevelopment of the 63-acre campus of Grand Traverse Commons. Their vision was to “Preserve, through adaptive reuse, the historic buildings and grounds of the TCSH to create a mixed-use walkable neighborhood.” (Inside The Village 2019, Ray Minervini, page 3) On May 19, 2000, a twelve-month ‘Due Diligence’ Restoration Agreement was signed. The next twelve months were spent conducting engineering, architectural, marketing, and environmental feasibility studies. The results of the studies were presented to the Commons Board, the Traverse City Manager, and state and federal agencies. The idea of creating a village supported by an economic environment was accepted.

On May 6, 2002, The Minervini Group LLC bought Building 50, the chapel, and two cottages. The first and most urgent task was to repair the roofs as they had suffered severely from years of neglect that led to interior damage.

Working from the south side of the building and moving north restoration was done in phases. On July 6, 2004, Trattoria Stella, a fine dining restaurant supporting local farms and wineries, opened. Stella’s drew diners from all over Michigan and awakened the area to the project.

After sixteen years of creativity and sweat, Building 50 was completed. On the garden level, you can find the Mercado, a host of retail shops, restaurants, and hallways displaying a variety of art. Business offices occupy levels one and two. Apartments and lofts can be found on floors three and four.

Residential offerings range from high end living to affordable housing. Cordia at Grand Traverse Commons, a senior living facility, is housed in the north end of the building with one-hundred-ten senior apartments. All the living areas are tucked into the old architecture. The installation of modern conveniences, combined with the architectural design gives each residence a unique European feel.

In the spring of 2011, the restoration of the chapel began. It is now known as Kirkbride Hall and is used as an event center. With its thirty-foot-high ceilings and lovely stained-glass windows, it holds up to one-hundred-sixty guests. It was in May of 2014 that the first event took place in Kirkbride Hall.

From May 17 through June 5, 2010, the piazza was constructed. You can find a bocce ball court, a comfortable place to sit and have lunch or attend festivals. On Mondays from May through October you can shop at the Farmer’s Market from 2:00 to 6:00. The market is held inside Building 50 during the winter months. Buildings surrounding the piazza have been repurposed. A coffee roastery and winery now reside in the former laundry building. The vegetable peeling building is now home to a cheesecake shop, and there is a daily fire set in the firehouse, now used as a brick oven bakery.

Currently, the Minervini Group is working on the second largest building on campus, Building 58, once used as a kitchen and warehouse. An additional floor has been added to the building. It is presently being transformed into office space and twenty-four residential condominiums with underground parking spaces.

Once Building 58 is completed, three cottages will be developed into boutique hotels. The Minervini Group also hopes to restore the central intake area to its former glory with its spire and grand mahogany curved staircase.

To date, one hundred twenty million dollars have been invested in The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Investors are still being sought to continue the marvelous work being accomplished there. Noelle Riley said it perfectly in her article published in the Record Eagle on April 9, 2019, “Minervini brought function and elegance back to the state hospital.” The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is a worthy investment.

Ray Minervini’s dream has and will continue to come true. The Village at Grand Traverse Commons has become a neighborhood village for families, entrepreneurs, artists, chefs, retirees, carpenters, doctors, writers, shopkeepers, bricklayers, and many more. 

It will be a joy to watch its continued growth.

To learn more about The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. take some time to shop, dine in one of its many restaurants, attend a festival, take a tour, or sit in the piazza and watch life. I promise you; you will not be disappointed. View the latest information regarding new Covid-19 policies and read more about The Village here –> https://www.thevillagetc.com/

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment of a three-part series telling the story of the evolution of the Northern Michigan Asylum to the present-day Grand Traverse Commons. You can read the first installment here –> Pure Genius – Northern Michigan Asylum – Part 1 and the second installment here –> Pure Genius – TC Regional Psychiatric Hospital (TCRPH) – Part 2. As I researched, I realized that this story was too big to tell in its entirety. I hope that after reading the collection of articles, your interests will be peaked encouraging you to visit, tour, or read one of the many books published on this subject.

To learn more about the Traverse City State Hospital’s past, present, and future the following books are available at Horizon Books on Front Street, Bookbrokers & Kramer’s Café in the Grand Traverse Mall, or online.

1. Northern Michigan Asylum: A History of Traverse City State Hospital by William A. Decker.

2. Beauty is Therapy: Memories of the Traverse City State Hospital by Kristen M. Haines and Earle E. Steele.

3. Traverse City State Hospital, Image of America by Chris Miller.

4. How Thin The Veil by Jack Kerkhoff and Ray Minervini.

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