Visiting an old asylum

"Building 50", the former Northern M...

“Building 50”, the former Northern Michigan Asylum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Northern Michigan Asylum opened in Traverse City, Michigan in 1885. At that time, physicians believed that kindness, voluntary work, and exposure to beauty were the mainstays of treatment for patients who at that time were called “insane.” Towards that end, the hospital buildings were designed in a beautiful architectural style resembling  castles, with balconies, turrets and detailed architectural embellishments. The grounds included gardens and  barns where patients assisted in growing food for the hospital and raising livestock.

The asylum, later renamed Traverse City State Hospital, closed in 1989. The buildings were abandoned and fell into disrepair, and many of the original buildings were demolished. I first saw this place years ago while vacationing near Traverse City, and saw the castle turrets peeking up through the trees. I wanted to know what this castle grounds was doing in the middle of a bustling northern Michigan tourist town, and made Best Husband drive around until we found the deserted grounds. My children sulked in the car while I walked around with my camera, dodging broken glass and taking film photo after photo of the dilapidated, but once beautiful buildings.

In recent years, a forward-thinking developer began restoring the property into a mixed-use community of shops, office space and apartments. Though much of the property has been restored, many buildings remain shuttered, awaiting restoration, and stand in sharp contrast to the fresh paint and red-roofed turrets of the restored areas. On this trip, I visited the shops in the lower level of building 50, ate lunch in the restaurant that once housed the fire department, and took more photos, of the restored and the remaining untouched areas. I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story.

© Huffygirl 2013

Related link: New York Times tells the restoration story 


10 thoughts on “Visiting an old asylum

  1. My senior thesis in college was about the closing of the enormous state mental institutions in New York State. I’m not sure what ever happened to them. Gorgeous properties and buildings. Glad to see that Michigan is using the land and buildings.

    • How interesting Lisa. Many people believe that that the closing of the large state mental institutions is what caused the surge of homeless persons we now see on corners and and doorways in most cities-. We had a similar hospital where I live, that is still in use, but most of the buildings have been torn down. This one lacks the picturesque quality of the Traverse City Asylum though. I’ve had these photos simmering until I had time to put together a photo journal. I would have liked to include my original film photos, but that would have involved searching through box after box of uncatalogued photos to find and then scan them. Too much work right now.

  2. Fascinating – I’ll agree with Cyclinggrandma that it’s wonderful that these buildings are being reused. (Not all abandoned hospitals can be fixed up, though – some are so dilapidated they just aren’t safe.)

  3. I KNEW it reminded me of the spate of horror movies I watched recently at my hubby’s request about horrible happenings in abandoned mental institutions that drove their spirits to crave revenge. I had to stop watching them because of the sleepless nights and nightmares – who says writers don’t have imaginations? Well, actually, no one says that, but you get my point.

    From what I saw in the photos (absolutely great pics, btw), the restored parts of the buildings are way less beautiful than the originals. However, I don’t know that I would be any more comfortable walking through the newer parts.

    Thanks for sharing this part of history, HG. Very interesting.

    • As far as I know Sandra, this one is not haunted, although it seems one can always find someone with a story to the contrary. I agree with you that the restoration lacks some of the detailed embellishments and beauty of the original buildings, but I guess in the interest of economy, that had to leave some things out. Looks like the restored part are a little different color from the original, although that could just be the dirt of the ages. The buildings are over 100 years old.

      I did go through the public parts of the building where there were shops and restaurants when I was there last summer. It felt a little creepy, but not really haunted. Some of the interior photos of the patient areas I got through the windows, and really wished I could have sneaked inside and explored.

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