Not So Crazy After All These Years: Success at the Asylum

The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, seen across the Munson Arboretum Lawn

TRAVERSE CITY, MI– When Ray Minervini  agreed to take over the redevelopment of Traverse City’s 117-year-old mental asylum , more than a few people thought the idea was, well… crazy.

The job was to transform a campus of abandoned, decaying buildings into a thriving “village” of shops, restaurants, homes and offices – the largest such project in the country – without destroying the site’s distinctive historical and architectural features. It had already proven too big a task for several other companies, and the people in this northern Michigan resort town were reluctantly beginning to talk about tearing the stately old structures down.

Ten years later, the project is still far from finished – but nobody is questioning the sanity of the idea anymore. In fact, the Village at Grand Traverse Commons is already one of the city’s star attractions.  Set in a 500-acre expanse of forest and meadow on the city’s western edge, the tall castle-like buildings of the former asylum are now a bustling residential and commercial center that’s wildly popular with local residents and visitors alike.

“It’s been quite an adventure,” says the developer, who can often be found wandering through the project’s many active construction areas, hardhat on his head and measuring tape in his hand. “And it’s not over yet.”

In 1885, when the state of Michigan was looking for a place to locate a new asylum, they chose Traverse City because they believed that fresh air and beautiful surroundings could ease the sufferings of the mentally ill. The hospital became a huge park,filled with Victorian-Italianate buildings of golden brick and planted with exotic trees collected from around the world. It was also a small, self-sufficient city in its own right, with a population that reached as high as 3,500 – larger than that of the city itself.

The centerpiece of the Commons is Building 50, a massive structure of golden Victorian brick topped with ornate scarlet-tipped turrets. Three stories tall and a quarter of a mile from end to end, it is undergoing a gradual makeover that is nearly 60 percent complete. Its garrets and  lofts are condominiums and apartments; its lower floors hold offices and businesses, while its former cellar is now The Mercato, a subterranean shopping mall of trendy galleries, boutiques and restaurants, including the trendy Trattoria Stella.

Other buildings in the huge redevelopment area have also been reborn to other uses. The asylum’s former fire station is now an organic brick oven bakery; another old brick building is the home of the Underground Cheesecake Co., while the former laundry houses a winery and tasting room known as Left Foot Charley. Meanwhile, the property’s wide tree-shaded lawns have become a prime space for public events, including the Traverse City Wine and Art Festivaland the Traverse City Microbrew & Music Festival.

And the pace of development shows no sign of slowing down, especially now that a new system of roads and sidewalks now links the once isolated asylum campus to the rest of the town. The Mercato continues to extend itself northward, while  the 13,000-square-foot former chapel at the center of Building 50 is undergoing a $3 million facelift and will emerge as a multi-purpose event area. There is talk of a microbrewery/brewpub, and of a boutique hotel and conference center in several “cottage” buildings on the periphery of the campus.

Meanwhile, a set of huge “cathedral barns” that once belonged the the asylum’s self-sufficient farm are being readied for a $1.5 million renewal that will make them into indoor spaces for concerts, farm markets and weddings  — and the headquarters of the 26-acre Botanic Garden of Northwest Michigan.

Just 10 years — but they’ve gotten a lot done!


About mikelovestc

These days, I’m the media relations guy for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, but before that I spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a job that frequently took me out into the most remote backroads, forests, beaches and islands of the beautiful Grand Traverse Region. My strategy was pretty simple — just drive, paddle, ski or walk until you’re certain you’re lost, and then find somebody to talk to. It was a great job! I never intended to live in Traverse City. I grew up in Grand Rapids, spent four years in the Coast Guard in places like Miami Beach, Monterey and San Francisco, and when I finally graduated from college I took a summer job at the Miami Herald. To my surprise, I discovered I didn’t like the tropics nearly as much as I thought I would — and when the Record-Eagle offered me a job I took it, figuring I’d put in a year or two and head off to someplace like Seattle or Portland. What I discovered very quickly is that this place gets to you in a variety of unexpected ways. The beaches here are as lovely as anyplace else I’ve ever been, the weather is mild all year round — warm enough for swimming in September and cold enough for skiing in December — and just about the time you’re getting tired of one season you get another one every bit as pleasant. The people are laid-back and friendly, the music and arts scene is awesome, and the place still hasn’t gotten so sophisticated that a guy like me feels out of place.
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One Response to Not So Crazy After All These Years: Success at the Asylum

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