The "Asylum Beautiful," Pt. 1

Photos date from June 2004 and later.

I knew of the Traverse City Asylum, sitting in the northwest corner of the Mitten, possibly the coolest-looking building I had ever seen pictures of, but never thought I would get the chance to check it out. I figured it would be well sealed and guarded, but I was wrong.

This old Victorian-Italianate castle was just waiting to be explored. I had planned a backpacking trip to South Manitou Island in Lake Michigan, and decided as an afterthought to stop by the asylum on my way up from Detroit. Little did I know, it would turn out to be the highlight of my trip.

I knew that it was undergoing renovation, and that the center of Building 50, the Kirkbride portion, had a coffee shop operating in it. As I drew near, I could see the vent-spires of the imposing building stabbing up through the treetops, and knew I was going to be blown away.

The property was transferred in 1993 from the state to "the community" for redevelopment; the locals loved their asylum so much and thought it so integral to the fabric of their community (despite negative perceptions of asylums), that they fought to preserve it from demolition and the complex was awarded to the Grand Traverse Commons Redevelopment Corporation.

Traverse City's was the third Kirkbride-plan state hospital to be erected in Michigan, and the first one in Michigan to have electric power, according to the book Beauty is Therapy, by former groundskeeper Earle Steele. The other two were Kalamazoo, and Pontiac State Hospitals. When the state was deciding where the "Northern Michigan Asylum" would be built 15 towns were originally considered, and the final five contestants were Big Rapids, Greenville, Reed City, Manistee, and of course Traverse City.

The asylum was designed by Gordon W. Lloyd of Detroit, one of the foremost architects in the Midwest. He designed many other notable structures in Michigan including the David Whitney mansion, old Grace Hospital, and many very remarkable churches.

It opened in 1885, and served all of the 39 counties that existed at the time in the northern half of the Mitten. Many of the patients in the early years were old ex-lumberjacks who had come to the end of their usefulness as Michigan's great logging era was drawing to a close. Soon, the asylum became Traverse City's largest employer. For ten years it would be the only psychiatric hospital in all of northern Michigan, until the Newberry State Hospital was erected in the Upper Peninsula.

Today, out of all five of the Kirkbride-style buildings that were erected in Michigan, this is the only one that still stands, despite being minus its central administration building, that was quite regrettably torn down in 1963. The other Kirkbrides that were built in Michigan were: Kalamazoo State Hospital (which had two side-by-side), Pontiac State Hospital, and St. Josephs' Retreat in Dearborn.

I drove right up the front drive of the place and parked, absolutely dumbstruck with the sight of the incredible structure...I had never seen a Kirkbride building in person before.

I absent-mindedly prepped my camera (I still shot film back then), but had no idea where or how to begin. I eventually got comfortable enough to wander the whole grounds, and discovered a veritable ghost-town of abandoned buildings ranging in vintage from the 1880s to the 1950s, many of them hanging wide open.

The grounds were well manicured, and lots of people played frisbee here and walked their dogs, as if it were a city park, or that they somehow just didn't notice the gigantic, hulking abandoned asylum looming in their midst. I was in supreme awe of the place.

Construction workers milled about Building 50's male wing, which was under renovation, but paid me little heed. I played it cool, acting like the model tourist, all the while gauging the level of security.

Back in 2004 the renovation was only in its infancy, and not even the male wing had been cleaned up yet, as you can see.

As far as I know, Traverse City was the only Kirkbride-style building to ever have its wings take on a forward-wrapping, or embracing orientation as opposed to a strictly rear-swept position. Due to the amount of trees growing in front of it now, the only way to discern this attribute is from a bird's-eye view or old photos.

I was giddy as a schoolboy...before long, I had slipped into the modern-looking laundry building to look for tunnel access. Surprisingly, no luck. Came back out and wandered some more, making mental notes of which other buildings had ways in. The sky hinted of rain, and it soon came, though I was undaunted. I got soaked to the bone and shivered, but dutifully shot through four rolls of film.

My ferry to South Manitou Island was due to depart from Leland at 10am the next morning, so it seemed I would not get much chance to do Building 50 (the Kirk) appeared well-sealed anyway. Oh well.

I found Cottage 34 to be well cleaned out, but even better preserved than Cottage 40. I wondered why I still hadn’t found any tunnel entrances yet.

As one might expect of a western Michigan locale, one of the main occupational therapy / vocational programs offered was furniture making, and there was an entire shop dedicated to it:

The interior was somewhat empty, and a little wrecked.

Speaking of Michigan traditions, I bet you're probably not too incredibly surprised to hear that Albert Kahn even designed the powerhouse of the institution:

The Laundry Building (now converted into a wine bar or something):

Just down the street is the old Bath House, now a cheesecakery or somesuch thing:

Cottage 34:

Cottage 30:

Night fell, and I made my way back to the car, soaked. I decided it safe to sleep in my cushy '84 Buick, parked right there in front of the menacing Kirkbride.

This would allow me to wake up early and have time to do another quick survey of the grounds in the morning before heading north into the Leelanau Peninsula. I ate an MRE and went to sleep, with the black monster of an asylum leering threateningly down at me like a storm cloud.

I stirred from sleep several times in the small hours, and just stared at the building in awe, listening to the leaves being rustled by the night breeze. What had been mellow-yellow (due to the unique pigmentation of its bricks) and pleasant in the light of day now was equally dour and menacing under the cover of darkness.

As it turns out, the pleasantly yellowish brick that the asylum is constructed of is a local oddity unique to the Grand Traverse area. It was made by the Markham Brickworks in nearby Greilickville, and despite its beauty has a brittle, crumbly texture. Many of the older buildings and houses in Traverse City are built of this brick, because it was the only kind that was available in the early days of the city, being made from a marl found at the bottom of Cedar Lake. After a fire swept through the city destroying most of the wooden-constructed buildings, they started building with brick even though it was harder to obtain here.

I was up at dawn and had breakfast in the Building 50 coffee shop before heading out again...there was just something very, very odd about that whole thing, I dunno.

At any rate, today was gloriously sunny and mild, and the brilliant light worked wonders on the building's soft coloration, which was designed to be especially pleasant, though its silhouette had been terrifying on a moonless night. Construction workers were bustling everywhere again, and I found myself behind Building 50's female wing, which was not yet undergoing renovation.

All of a sudden, to my shock I discovered a wooden door leading into the Kirkbride that had a panel missing...I floated slowly up to it, casting sidelong glances at the nearby workers. I stepped up onto the porch, and poked my head through the opening. No cameras, no motion-sensors. I set my camera inside and took a quick picture. Standing on the porch, I found myself nervously wrestling with a bit of a I go in and risk possible trouble, and missing my ferry in a couple hours?

Through the hole in the door issued a strong draft of cool air, as if the building were exhaling scornfully right in my indecisive face. My nostrils were filled with "abandoned-building-smell"...that intoxicating musk of mildewed plaster and ancient wood. The decision was made—I dove right in, headlong.

I explored the entire female wing, since access to the other side was cut off. The 12-foot-tall corridors of this building seemed convoluted and labyrinthine to me, making navigation confusing. Light streamed in from all sides, crossing the hall from room to room, beautifying the place wonderfully.

"Mmmmm....Juicy Fruit."

Everything here was soft-textured, and easy on the eyes...I pondered the rounded edges of the walls. Were they a conscious effort to aesthetically soothe the troubled mind, or a subtle utility that betrayed the uglier reality of asylum life—making it easier for orderlies to throw violent patients into the seclusion rooms without their being able to grab onto the corners of the walls?

It could have been just a Victorian styling fad, but I felt it was just as likely they were rounded to minimize injuries due to potential "collisions" with them.

I took a peek inside one of the empty rooms, and found another disturbing feature—the small pipe for the sprinkler system that hung down from the ceiling by about six inches was guarded by a screen, apparently to keep patients from being able to tie their bedsheets or clothing around it to hang themselves.

I was out of film again, and was cutting close on time if I was to make my ferry in Leelanau. Satisfied that I had seen all I could, I left, extraordinarily content. As fate would have it, I'd be back again the very next weekend.

CLICK for part two.