Pure Genius – Northern Michigan Asylum – Part 1

By Karen Rieser
Photos from The Village at Grand Traverse Commons

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the first installment of a three-part series telling the story of the evolution of the Northern Michigan Asylum to the present-day Grand Traverse Commons.

Looney, nutcase, brainsick, demented, disturbed, mad, unbalanced, half-baked, screwball, dotty, insane, bizarre, deranged, maniac, moron, imbecile and idiot are just a few labels that were attached to mental illness in the early eighteen hundreds. Through-out history, there has been a progression of theories and beliefs as to the origins of mental illness. First, mental illness was believed to be caused by the supernatural. Individuals were thought to be possessed by the devil, to be witches, or were cursed. Somatogenic (from the physical body) theories began to evolve. The brain was damaged, or one was suffering from an illness or a genetic concern. Theories based on psychogenic (from the mind) followed. The patient may be suffering from witnessing a traumatic event, or they may have distorted perceptions of maladaptive learning. Regardless of the cause, the mentally ill were, for the most part, poorly treated. Many mentally ill persons were beaten, chained, locked away, burned at stake, drown, bled, shocked, or had parts of their brain removed.

Before the nineteenth century, the mentally ill individual was the responsibility of the family. In the mid-eighteen hundreds, institutionalization became a popular alternative. Families could commit a family member for a host of reasons such as Novel reading, business trouble, being kicked in the head by a horse, having an opium habit, fever, or loss of a lawsuit. Women trouble, self-abuse, domestic trouble, hysteria, deafness, blindness, experiencing war (the Civil War had just ended), and greediness are but a few more reasons listed for commitment. Sadly, asylums weren’t any better or even worse than being shut away at home. Living conditions were foul, physical and verbal abuse was common, and treatment was harsh.

The Age of Enlightenment or Reason and the Romantic Era began in Europe in the late sixteen hundreds and brought changes in the treatment of the mentally ill. It made its way to America in the mid-eighteen hundreds. The Age of Enlightenment was a time of intellectualism – valuing the ideas of God, reason, nature, and humanity. Intellectualism celebrated art, music, writing, and nature during the Romantic Era, which overlapped the Age of Enlightenment.

In Paris, France, in the seventeen hundreds, senior physician Philippe Pinel, also known as the founder of psychiatry, promoted the idea that the mentally ill were individuals that needed to be held in a pleasant environment, talked to, and case notes kept concerning their condition. In 1785, Vincenzo Chiarughi was the physician director of the Santa Dorotea Hospital in Florence, Italy. Chiarughi unchained the mentally ill, significantly improved their hygiene, and provided occupational therapy. It was in England during the eighteen hundreds that William Turk, a Quaker, businessman, and philanthropist, developed the ‘Moral Management’ movement for treating the mentally ill. He promoted healing through self-discipline, human interactions, and attending to the spiritual needs of the patient. He felt social, individual, and occupational therapies were the key to wellness. It was Turk’s theories that attracted the attention of many Americans.

Dorothea Dix and journalist Nellie Bly were two of the individuals who brought attention to the treatment of the mentally in the United States. In 1887, Nellie Bly went undercover in the Blackwell Island Insane Asylum in New York. She reported she was easily committed, lived in harsh filthy conditions, and was treated inhumanely. Beginning in the nineteen hundreds, Dorothea Dix led a reform movement for the humane treatment of the mentally ill. This reform became her life-long crusade.

It was during the last half of the nineteenth century that asylums came to the state of Michigan. The first asylums were built in Kalamazoo and Pontiac. These facilities filled quickly. In 1881, the State of Michigan felt there was a need for more space. They looked to northern Michigan. At this time, Perry Hannah was looking for a new employment opportunity for Traverse City as his lumbering business was waning. Using his influence with Michigan legislators, he successfully lobbied for Traverse City to be the site for the Northern Michigan Asylum.

A four-hundred-acre farm was purchased on the west side of Traverse City as the site for the hospital. Over time adjacent land was purchased. What is now Division Street was the line of ‘division’ between the asylum and Traverse City.


Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a noted psychiatrist and architect from Philadelphia, developed an architectural plan for asylums that became known as the “Kirkbride Plan.” Dr. Kirkbride believed healing was achieved by being exposed to natural light, a pleasant environment, and air circulation. Gordon W. Lloyd, a local architect, was chosen to design the building using the Kirkbride Plan.

State Hospital Building 50 – by Village TC

It was the artesian wells that helped determine the site for Building 50 as an abundance of water would be needed to support the large population expected to inhabit the asylum. The building was positioned north and south to get the maximum east-west sunlight and fresh air. Fresh air was considered mandatory for good physical and mental health. Air was circulated throughout the buildings by a system of vents in the walls. What we call spires today were the air vents that expelled stale air.

The bricks used in the construction of the majority of buildings on campus were purchased from the Markham Brothers Brick Company in Greilickville. It took nine million bricks to construct Building 50. The bricks needed to be delivered daily in rain, snow, or sun, so a railroad spur was built from the Markham Kiln to Building 50.

Building 50 took two and a half years to construct and was a quarter-mile long. It has what has been called a ‘batwing shape.’ The mid-point of the building, the body of the bat, housed the intake area above, which were two floors providing residences for the doctors and nurses working in the asylum. From each side of the intake building, spread an enormous wing, one housing men and the other women. The patients exhibiting little disturbance lived closer to the center while the most disturbed patients resided at the end of the wings.

The Northern Michigan Asylum opened in 1885, admitting patients from the over-crowded Kalamazoo and Pontiac facilities. The asylum’s population continued to grow, so additional buildings were added in a cottage system style as the Kirkbride Plan had fallen out of favor. At that time, Dr. Kirkbride’s theories were being challenged, and the large buildings were expensive to build and maintain. A cottage system was used to provide separate housing for men and women. In addition, two infirmaries were constructed to serve the patient’s physical health needs. In the end, there were ninety-six buildings on campus, many connected by tunnels. Some of the tunnels were used to move people and others for steam.

Cottage 30 – by Village TC

From November of 1885 to September 1, 1924, Dr. James Decker Munson was the hospital’s superintendent. It was his philosophy that beauty, socializing, and work were therapies that would cure the mentally ill. Patients were to be treated with kindness, physically comfortable, and respected.

Beauty was achieved through the Victorian-Italianate style design of the building. The high ceilings gave the building a feeling of openness, as light flowed through multiple large windows. Two greenhouses provided fresh flowers year-round. Fine furnishings, art, music (there was a piano on every ward on every floor), plants, and fresh flowers were displayed on the wards and in cottages. The grounds were immaculate, displaying trees and plants that Dr. Munson and his wife brought back from vacations taken around the world. Dining halls served food on linen-covered tables, using fine china, silverware, and goblets. Terrazzo floors with decorative tile work were throughout the buildings.

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

Social interactions were achieved on the wards in the Northern Michigan Asylum. Each patient had a sleeping room with a large window. At ninety-four square feet, the room was just big enough to hold a bed. Life took place in the hallways or unique rooms built as gathering places. The long narrow doors had transoms to let the healing light flow through the halls.

State Hospital Laundry – by VillageTC

Social interactions were also achieved through occupational therapy. The opportunity to work gave the patients a sense of purpose. As the asylum grew, so did the work opportunities. In 1885, a farm was started with the purchase of a herd of dairy cows. One cow, Colantha Walker, was a world champion milk cow. By 1926 Colantha had given an unprecedented 22,918 pounds of milk. This beloved cow’s headstone can be seen on the property. By 1895, the farm included pigs, chicken, beef cows, and fields of vegetables. The farm provided food for the hospital, and the excess was sold in Traverse City. Other work opportunities included laundry, a fire station, furniture making, canning fruits and vegetables, a glass shop, greenhouse work, food preparation, grounds work, a carpentry shop, just to name a few. The asylum’s ultimate goal was to become self-sufficient. By the 1950s, self-sufficiency was achieved. The asylum was serving over 3,000 patients and was Traverse City’s largest employer. Its future seemed certain, but a change was not far away.

State Hospital -1960 from The Village TC

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the first installment of a three-part series telling the story of the evolution of the Northern Michigan Asylum to the present-day Grand Traverse Commons. As I researched, I came to realize that this story was too big to tell in its entirety. I hope that after reading this and the subsequent articles, your interests will be peaked encouraging you to visit, tour, and read one of the many books published on this subject.

My next article will speak to the deinstitutionalization movement and closing of what had become known as the Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital.

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