The Commons

Historical tours provide look inside the redeveloped state hospital.
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Grand Traverse Commons Tunnels
Photography courtesy of Gary Ennis

Redeveloped as The Village at Grand Traverse Commons over the last 15 years, the former Traverse City State Hospital bustles with locals, professionals and hipsters. The sprawling complex includes condos, professional offices, local shops, a 5-star restaurant and places to relax over coffee, wine and beer.

Grand Traverse Commons
Photography courtesy of Traverse City Commons

Visitors can shop, dine, drink and explore at any of its storefronts that include:

• The Mercato for unique art, gifts and Michigan-made products

• Earthen Ales taproom and brewery

• Left Foot Charley winery and tasting room

• Cuppa Joe Café

• Higher Grounds Trading Company

• Pleasanton Brick Oven Bakery

• Sugar 2 Salt

• Trattoria Stella

• The Underground Cheesecake Company

Built with over 8 million bricks, the hospital was an architectural and institutional marvel when it opened in 1885. The state-run asylum’s storied and sometimes controversial history, along with rumored supernatural happenings, continues to fascinate locals and visitors.

In response, the group behind redeveloping the property hosts historical walking tours, giving the public access to some remote and unrenovated places. The tour includes the mammoth Victorian, Italianate-style Building 50, featuring towering spires, large windows and ornate details designed to make patients feel at home and uplift their spirits. It symbolizes the innovative approach to mental health care offered over a century ago in northern Michigan.

“What I am trying to do is make people aware of the history of the place because it is not what most people think of as an insane asylum,” said Joe Kilpatrick, the original tour guide. “… This was a radical approach to helping the mentally ill.”

Following a “Beauty is Therapy” theory on patient care, patient rooms had a direct supply of light, sunshine and fresh air. Fresh flowers, artwork and inspirational sayings decorated rooms and communal areas, and residents dined with fine china atop table linens. In the 1960s, Kilpatrick performed for residents with his school band and choir.

Grand Traverse Commons Mercato
Photography courtesy of Traverse City Commons

Patients who could work did. In its heyday, the self-sustaining facility had a large farm operation and world-champion dairy cow, greenhouses, bakery, various workshops and taught furniture construction, fruit canning, sewing and other trades.

“This was an embrace of their humanity,” Kilpatrick said. “The work they had them do was to give them a sense of accomplishment, a sense of purpose.”

Ray Minervini and The Minervini Group team started the tours five years ago as a way to get people to see the vision for the redevelopment, said Krystal Fluette, office manager. Now, several guides lead over 20 tours per week. They are offered year-round and regularly sell out during the busy summer months. In 2017, more than 13,000 people visited.

Each tour is a little bit different, personalized by the interests and background of the guides. The historical walking tour includes visiting an unrenovated men’s cottage and an original 1883 steam tunnel, considered a state-of-the-art ventilation system at the time.

Ben Smith started as a guide last summer and enjoys telling stories about the residents and his own memories of the property. His father, Philip B. Smith, served as superintendent from 1973-84, and he spent his teenage years living on the campus, working part time.

“The highlight of my tour is it was a very successful institution,” he said. “I think people have a natural curiosity about the place. The building is striking. On the twilight tour, some people are ghost-seeking, but I don’t think the place is haunted.”


If you want to go…

The Village at Grand Traverse Commons
830 Cottageview Drive
Traverse City, MI
(231) 941-1900
thevillagetc.com

Guided tours offered year-round:

  • Historical Walking Tour
  • Twilight Tour
  • Taste of the Village – A History
  • Wine & Beer Walking Tour
  • Missing Spire Walking Tour
  • Tripod Photography Tour

Visit the website for dates, times and ticket information.

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