Pure Genius – TC Regional Psychiatric Hospital (TCRPH) – Part 2

Researched and Written By Karen Rieser

Photos from The Village at Grand Traverse Commons

Over the years, the Northern Michigan Asylum’s name was changed to the Traverse City State Hospital and finally to the Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital (TCRPH). In 1978 the hospital was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was designated a Michigan Historic Site in 1985. These honors would come to play a part in the hospital’s future survival.

The early nineteen hundreds were considered the ‘Hay Days’ of the Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital (TCRPH). At that time, the institution was self-sufficient, housed 3,800 patients, and had a thousand employees. However, beginning in the 1950s, politics, a shift in population, scientific research, and changes in therapeutic philosophies led to its eventual closing on September 29, 1989.

State Hospital Tunnels – Courtesy of thevillagetc.com

The farm could no longer remain financially viable as the public began to withdraw support. Many residents of Traverse City were philosophically opposed to the idea of work therapy, likening it to slavery. Farmers, in particular, took issue with surplus fruits, vegetables, and meats marketed in Traverse City at a much lower cost than they could afford to sell their produce and meats. Over time farmers lobbied the state legislature, and a law was passed requiring the institution to pay its workers minimum wage. TCRPH could not afford to pay its laborers, so the farm shut down in the 1950s. By the 1970s, most of the buildings associated with the farm were demolished.

Another financial blow came as the government began cutting back funds it had promised to support the hospital. Financial strain was keenly felt.

The population of TCRPH also changed. During disease outbreaks, people suffering from polio, tuberculosis, typhoid, diphtheria, and influenza were admitted. The hospital even became a rehab facility for drug addicts and a training school for nurses while staff still attended to the mentally ill residents.

The idea of “beauty as therapy” dwindled. In 1963, the beautiful intake center of Building Fifty, with its marvelous carved mahogany staircase, was demolished and replaced by a two-story lackluster rectangular brick edifice. Why? It was deemed a fire hazard. The idea of beauty and the physical scarring of the hospital reflected the disrespect that would follow.

Harsh treatments were now being used with TCRPH patients. In the 1970s, the hospital began to use drug therapies to heal and control patients. Lobotomies were performed, insulin shock and electric shock therapy were used.

In the 1970s and 80s medical research, advancements in the development of pharmaceutical treatments, and the growing popularity of talk therapy lead the way to a nationwide movement for de-institutionalization.

The TCRPH grounds were shrinking. Pieces of property were sold to Munson Hospital, the Pavilions, and Garfield Township.

The population of the TCRPH was dwindling. In February of 1988, the hospital’s population was down to 140 patients. Medications were curing people, leaving empty cottages and wards. Other facilities were caring for the elderly; small group homes were seen as beneficial, and rehab centers appeared along with mental health clinics. The hospital was closed ward by ward. What once was the job of one institution now became the job of many specialized organizations, hospitals, and centers.

Ward in a men’s cottage. Courtesy of thevillagetc.com

When it became apparent that the institution would be locking its doors, staff placed as many patients as they could in new programs or with family. Sadly, there were quite a few patients that were never called for or did not qualify for current programs or facilities. Many of these patients were just released, thus enlarging Traverse City’s homeless population.

Bit by bit Northern Michigan Asylum was being chipped away. In September of 1980, the State of Michigan released information stating that it planned to demolish three buildings on the grounds. Traverse City filed a lawsuit against the State of Michigan to stop the demolition. The state unexpectedly showed up with a demolition crew prompting City Commissioner Carol Hale and others to place themselves between the wrecking ball and the building.

In 1984, local officials of the Department of Mental Health tried to arrange for the demolition of several buildings on site secretly. Local legislators were able to thwart these plans.

In May of 1991, the name of the grounds was changed to the Grand Traverse Commons. It was in 1993 that the property was transferred from the State of Michigan to the Grand Traverse Commons Redevelopment Corporation.

As debates raged concerning the future of the TCRPH, its buildings stood vacant. The abandoned buildings began to suffer from the elements. Roofs began to leak, which in turn damaged the interiors. Vandalism was prolific. Windows were shattered, walls embellished with graffiti and trespassing for mischief became an everyday event. The graffiti in the tunnels was so obscene it had to be painted over. The buildings just sat. 

The Grand Traverse Commons Redevelopment Corporation evaluated the site and decided to demolish the less historic buildings. The original ninety-six buildings on campus were reduced by half. The Grand Traverse Commons Redevelopment Corporation was now looking for a redevelopment plan for what was left of the site. In the year 2000, a promising project came along.

Courtesy of thevillagetc.com

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the second 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 As I researched, I came to realize 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.

My final article will look at what would become the largest repurposing project in the Western Hemisphere.

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