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The Village at Grand Traverse Commons – Michigan’s Only Remaining Kirkbride

POSTCARDS: From the Northern Michigan Asylum

The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, once known as the Northern Michigan Asylum, is the perfect getaway after a long winter. I checked myself in earlier this year and had a wonderful mental break.

Village at Grand Traverse Commons
The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is filled with history, shopping, and ample photo opportunities. All Photos by Carla Bumstead

Winter in Michigan is enough to drive anyone “insane.” While many may look toward warmer climates, I instead chose to take my break up in Traverse City – at a truly unique and historic place. The Village at Grand Traverse Commons provided shopping, a great place to get a great meal, and the opportunity to take a lot of cool photos.

Michigan’s Only Remaining Kirkbride

The Village was first known as the Northern Michigan Asylum (NMA) – which opened its doors to patients in 1885. The entire complex later became known as the State Hospital of Traverse City and, later, the Traverse City (TC) Regional Psychiatric Hospital. It closed as a hospital in 1989.

 Northern Michigan Asylum's Building 50
This framed photograph of the Northern Michigan Asylum’s Building 50 graces one of the hallways in The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Considered Victorian-Italianate, it followed the Kirkbride Plan – with a central administrative section and wings on either side for housing patients. Each patient room had a view of the outside, with a direct supply of light, sunshine, and fresh air.

The Village’s Building 50 is hugely historical – being one of only a relative few “Kirkbride” buildings in the world to have been preserved and restored. The Northern Michigan Asylum’s life as a psychiatric hospital ended in 1989. In 2002, work began to turn it into an economic center and residential community. There are also businesses on the main level and condos on the upper floors. Most condos are not an official part of “The Village.”

Condo view at  Northern Michigan Asylum
This was my view from one of the bedrooms in a rented condo on the top floor of the former asylum.

The Kirkbride Plan

The name “Kirkbride” and “Kirkbride Plan” comes from Thomas Kirkbride (1809 – 1883). He was a physician, advocate for the mentally ill, and founder of what would become the American Psychiatric Association. His plans called for a standardization of massive buildings to house the mentally ill. These almost palace-like structures were designed very carefully — so as to promote a healthy environment where patients could take an active part in their recovery.

The Kirkbride Plan resulted in over 70 of these seriously impressive buildings (which became known as simply “Kirkbrides”) being built in the U.S. Michigan was home to four — Kalamazoo Regional Psychiatric Hospital, Pontiac State Hospital, St Joseph’s Retreat in Dearborn, and Traverse City’s Northern Michigan Asylum. All but Traverse City’s are gone.

Chaple at Village at Grand Traverse Commons
Inside The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, Kirkbride Hall used to be NMA’s chapel. It is now a popular venue for weddings and other gatherings.

Beauty is Therapy

Dr. James Decker Munson was NMA’s founding medical superintendent. He was a firm believer in the psychiatric treatment method known as the “moral treatment movement.” At the time, Moral Treatment was considered quite revolutionary. Dr. Munson’s held the philosophy that “Beauty is Therapy.” The idea was to surround those suffering from mental illness with a beautiful environment – from interior design and exterior architecture to the hospital campus. The beauty of their surroundings was thought to help heal the patients’ conditions. The grounds of NMA were expansive and included a patient-worked farm for many years.

Village's Building 50
Windows are everywhere at The Village’s Building 50. Each NMA patient room had a view of the outside, with a direct supply of light, sunshine, and fresh air.


The Northern Michigan Asylum changed names twice over its 104-year lifespan. Last known as the Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital, it closed in 1989 due to declining use that came with changing mental health care philosophies and changes in the law.

In the early 1990s, the property was transferred from the state to the Grand Traverse Commons Redevelopment Corporation. While some of the less historic buildings were torn down, several redevelopment plans were proposed. But it wasn’t until 2000, when the Minervini Group began what were to be successful negotiations for purchase and renovation.

One of Mercato’s greatest charms is its brick hallways, typically adorned with artwork from many of its retail shops.

The Village at Grand Traverse Commons


A place to live, work, enjoy a picnic on the lawn, shop and dine.

– The Village at Grand Traverse Commons website

In all honestly, it does feel like a “neighborhood” – a really cool, unique, historical neighborhood. A healthy portion of the bottom level of Building 50 is a retail shopping center called the Mercato. It features clothing boutiques, art galleries, jewelry shops, gift shops and more. There are also several eateries.

Photo Tour
There are photos to be seen and even more to be taken during a visit to The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

Photo Tour of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons

One of the Mercato shops – B50 The Village Store – hosts tours of the complex. During my stay, I took a guided tour that included the steam tunnels under the main building (Building 50). We also went to one of the outlying unrestored residence halls.

I took hundreds of photos with my cell phone.

Creepy, cool stuff

The guided tours offered through B50 The Village Store include a chance to learn about the history of the complex, its construction and renovation, and the history of patient care at the facility throughout its 104-years as a psychiatric hospital. Tours are offered year-round, rain or shine.

Although the “public” parts of The Village are certainly photo-worthy, I spent the most film on the steam tunnels and the decaying residence cottage we had a chance to walk through. Messing around with shadows in the tunnels was seriously entertaining.

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The steam tunnels under the old Northern Michigan Asylum in Traverse City are a photographer’s delight.
unrestored residence cottage
This unrestored residence cottage on The Village at Grand Traverse Commons was part of a recent guided tour – and was home to numerous photos captured by article author Carla Bumstead.

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Carla Bumstead

Carla Bumstead is a veteran photographer and new contributing Editor to Thumbwind Publications.

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One thought on “The Village at Grand Traverse Commons – Michigan’s Only Remaining Kirkbride

  1. My father, Rev. Reverend James C. Hecocks, was a chaplain there in the late 50’s and early 60’s. He was one of very few that was allowed to hold Sunday afternoon services in the most challenging of the wards. Our family friends, Albert and Lena Wortman, were nurse supervisors there, as was Miss Bertha Orcutt and Mrs. Jane Freeman. Sometimes, as an eight year old, I would ride along and wait for my dad in the lobby. I was never scared, but after hearing eerie stories, I would not be comfortable staying there. I’m glad that those beautiful buildings are being restored.

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