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  • Writer's pictureJ. R. Erickson

Traverse City State Hospital

For my birthday this year, my family and I went on a tour of the former Northern Michigan Asylum. Surrounded by dense Northern Michigan forest, the asylum – now known as the Village at Grand Traverse Commons – seems a bit like escaping into another world. From the hubbub of downtown Traverse City, you turn on a seemingly innocuous road lined with towering oak trees. There you’ll get your first glimpse of Building Fifty – an enormous structure built in the late 1800s according to the Kirkbride Plan of construction. The architecture is stunning with long high windows, spires reaching into the sky, and a brick facade that puts castles to shame.

I’ve been visiting the hospital grounds for years. The area, also known as the Traverse City State Hospital, was an in-patient psychiatric hospital with thousands of patient and staff living on the grounds. Today, the Minervini Group has renovated portions of the property, including Building Fifty now home to restaurants, condominiums, a variety of shops, and even a winter farmer’s market on Saturday mornings.

The non-renovated areas of the prior asylum include large buildings known as cottages where many of the patients lived. Merely walking along these buildings is an eerie experience. The tour, which took us inside the old buildings, was both fascinating an disturbing. Although the stories told by our tour guide were largely humorous, there’s a haunted energy that permeates the crumbling brick structures. Long dark hallways end in smashed windows, plastic flapping in the chilly autumn breeze. The walls are graffitied and the floors are awash in plaster and dust. If I didn’t already have enough inspiration from this place for my new novel Some Can See, this tour definitely added more.

Although I was not yet born during the asylum’s prime years, I had a close family friend (we referred at him as a grandpa) who suffered from Schizophrenia. Before medication became main-stream, he spent weeks at a time in the Traverse City State Hospital, and his daughter remembers the screams of other patients when she would visit him.

Hallway in Abandoned Second Floor Cottage – Northern Michigan Asylum

Steam Tunnel beneath Building Fifty – Traverse City State Hospital

Whatever the realities of the asylum, the remnants are as mysterious and awe-inspiring as the original pictures that reveal a world within a world – a village tucked in the heart of Traverse City.

Exterior of Abandoned Cottage – Traverse City State Hospital

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