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  • Writer's pictureDesirae-Haunted Traverse

Exploring Traverse City: Beyond the Northern Michigan Asylum Tours

Updated: Apr 29

Traverse City, Michigan, is renowned for its picturesque landscapes, charming wineries, and intriguing historical sites. While the Northern Michigan Asylum tours offer a glimpse into the region's past, there's much more to discover beyond its Kirkbride-designed corridors.

Nestled within the charming city of Traverse City, Michigan, lies a historic landmark that stands as a testament to the region's intriguing past and architectural splendor: the Northern Michigan Asylum. Formerly known as the Traverse City State Hospital, this imposing structure has captivated visitors for generations with its captivating history and breathtaking architecture.

If you get the chance to book a tour at the Grand Traverse Commons location, this is a great tour in the area to explore.  With its rich history in the field of psychiatry and the rare and visually stunning Kirkbride-designed Building 50 and outer cottages on the grounds, a visit to this historic site is a great idea for any vacation that focuses on exploration.

Traverse City Michigan Tours
Grand Traverse Commons

A Glimpse into the Past

Exploring Traverse City: Beyond the Northern Michigan Asylum. The Asylum was established in the late 19th century in the year 1885, the Northern Michigan Asylum was founded with a noble mission: to provide compassionate care and treatment for individuals suffering from mental illness. Designed by renowned Detroit architect Gordon W. Lloyd, the sprawling complex was inspired by the principles of the Kirkbride Plan—a progressive approach to asylum design that emphasized natural light, fresh air, and therapeutic landscapes.

This asylum was the third established in the State of Michigan. The site for the third asylum was decided by officials in Lansing at the behest of our State Representative and founding father of Traverse City, Mr. Perry Hannah.

Hannah's hope was that this new industry to the area would help transition Traverse City from a fading lumber town to a provider of medical services at a large scale. His hopes were proven right and Traverse City now boasts on the grounds of the old Asylum, the region medical center, Munson Medical Center.

Architectural Marvels

The Northern Michigan Asylum is a prime example of Victorian-Italianate architecture, characterized by its grandiose façade, intricate detailing, and expansive grounds. The main building, with its distinctive bricks purchased from the Markham Brickyard, located just a few miles to the north in Greilickville, create an exterior with towering cupolas. The structures exude an air of elegance and grandeur, while the surrounding cottages and pavilions offer a glimpse into life within the asylum walls.

Historic Significance

Throughout its storied history, the Northern Michigan Asylum played a pivotal role in the treatment and care of individuals with mental illness. At its peak, the facility housed hundreds of patients and employed a dedicated staff of doctors, nurses, and caregivers. Despite the challenges and controversies that marked its existence, the asylum remained a beacon of hope and healing for countless individuals and families in need. This beacon was spearhead by Dr. Decker Munson.

Munson was the first superintendent of the psychiatric hospital and believed and implement treatments that paralleled "beauty if therapy." He used gardens and work outside to help restore a patients well being.

With the expansive grounds and buildings it also was the center for care provided to highly contagious illnesses such as the Spanish Influenza, Polio, Tuberculosis, Typhoid, diphtheria, and more. Sadly, this also means that the numbers of loss of life on the grounds was quite high with a potter field established on the eastside of the campus, where at one time the Nurses Dormitories were located and serves as a State of Michigan office.

Preservation Efforts

In recent years, the Northern Michigan Asylum, now called the Grand Traverse Commons, has undergone a remarkable transformation, thanks to ongoing preservation efforts and adaptive reuse projects. Today, the historic complex is home to a vibrant mix of businesses, shops, restaurants, and cultural attractions, breathing new life into its hallowed halls while honoring its rich heritage.

Exploring the Asylum Today

Visitors to Traverse City can embark on guided tours of the Northern Michigan Asylum, offering a fascinating glimpse into its past and present. From guided historical tours to photography tours of the campus, there's something for everyone to discover within the walls of this iconic landmark.

The Northern Michigan Asylum/Grand Traverse Commons stands as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the enduring power of architectural innovation. As visitors explore its storied halls and marvel at its grandeur, they are transported back in time to an era of compassion, healing, and hope. From its rich history to its architectural marvels, the Northern Michigan Asylum continues to inspire and captivate all who encounter its timeless beauty.

Plan your visit to Traverse City today and experience the magic of the Northern Michigan Asylum for yourself. Step back in time and uncover the secrets of this historic landmark, where history comes alive amidst the stunning architecture and lush landscapes of northern Michigan.

However, a tour is not necessary if you want to go off on your own designed explorations of the Northern Michigan Asylum's grounds and the immediate Traverse City area.

3 Self Guided Places to Explore on the Asylum Grounds

1. The Garfield Recreation Trails

Nestled near the historic Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City, Michigan, the Garfield Recreation Trails offer an idyllic escape into nature for locals and visitors alike. These trails wind through lush woodlands and rolling hills, providing a scenic backdrop for outdoor enthusiasts to explore and enjoy. Originally established as part of the Grand Traverse Commons' master plan, the Garfield Recreation Trails have evolved into a beloved recreational area cherished by the community.

With a variety of trails catering to hikers, bikers, and nature lovers of all skill levels, the Garfield Recreation Trails offer something for everyone. Whether you're seeking a leisurely stroll through the forest, a challenging mountain bike ride, or a peaceful spot to admire the beauty of Northern Michigan, these trails deliver a captivating outdoor experience. As you wander along the winding paths, you'll encounter towering trees, babbling brooks, and abundant wildlife, creating a serene oasis in the heart of Traverse City. With vantage points to see the Asylum's buildings from amazing vantage points especially if you climb to the water tower that sits atop the hill overlooking the grounds below.

For history enthusiasts, the Garfield Recreation Trails offer a glimpse into the area's past, with interpretive signs highlighting the rich heritage of the Grand Traverse Commons and its transformation from a state hospital to a vibrant community hub. Whether you're exploring solo or embarking on a family adventure, the Garfield Recreation Trails invite you to immerse yourself in the natural beauty and tranquility of Northern Michigan.

Trails in Traverse City Michigan
Walk Beautiful Trails just West of the GT Commons' grounds

2. The Hippie Tree

Tucked away in the serene Garfield Recreation's woods, lies a hidden gem known as the Hippie Tree—a beloved local landmark that has captured the hearts of residents and visitors alike. This enchanting spot, nestled along the shores of West Grand Traverse Bay, offers a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The Hippie Tree is not just a tree—it's a symbol of community, creativity, and connection to nature.

Traverse City Haunted Location
Hippie Tree in Traverse City

Legend has it that the Hippie Tree earned its name during the 1960s, when it became a gathering place for the free-spirited individuals who embraced the hippie culture of peace, love, and harmony with nature. Over the years, the tree has become adorned with colorful trinkets, dreamcatchers, and messages of hope, creating a whimsical and magical atmosphere that transports visitors to another time and place.

Today, the Hippie Tree continues to serve as a beloved meeting spot for locals and a hidden gem for adventurous travelers seeking a taste of Traverse City's unique charm. Whether you're looking to soak in the stunning views of the bay, bask in the beauty of nature, or simply unwind beneath the shade of the tree's leafy branches, the Hippie Tree offers a one-of-a-kind experience that is sure to leave a lasting impression.

Ghost Tours Traverse City Michigan
Haunted Location in Traverse City

There is some paranormal activity that has been reported through the years at this location. This author has investigated this site for over 3 decades and captured orbs, shadow figures, poltergeist activity, and a strange cryptid as well. For more information about the paranormal happenings in the area, I would highly suggest you book the Historical Ghost Lantern Tour through downtown Traverse City presented by Haunted Traverse Tours. The only tour company in all of Grand Traverse County that specializes in ghost stories and has the experience and passion for all things paranormal.

3. The Botanic Garden and Fairy Trail at the Historic Barns Park

Nestled just south of the Grand Traverse Common's grounds is the historic barns stand as timeless landmarks, echoing the region's rich agricultural heritage. With over 10 acres of meticulously curated gardens, including themed landscapes, native plant collections, and serene walking paths, this enchanting destination offers a tranquil escape for nature lovers and gardening enthusiasts alike.

Trails, Barns, and Gardens in Traverse City
Historic Barns in Traverse City

Discover the beauty of diverse ecosystems as you meander through lush meadows, fragrant herb gardens, vibrant floral displays and our very own Fairy Trail. Will you catch the glimpse of one of our fairy occupants out and about in the enchanted woods? One can only hope! What is assured is many of the fairy homes and gardens will be observed during your hike on the trail.

From the soothing sounds of trickling water features to the vibrant colors of blooming perennials, every corner of The Botanic Garden beckons with its unique allure. Immerse yourself in the natural splendor of Northern Michigan as you unwind amidst towering trees, fluttering butterflies, and the gentle embrace of a botanical paradise. Whether you're seeking inspiration for your own garden or simply craving a peaceful retreat in nature, The Botanic Garden invites you to experience the timeless beauty and boundless wonder of the natural world.

Explore more in Traverse City

While the Northern Michigan Asylum grounds provide a fascinating glimpse into the region's history, Traverse City offers a diverse range of alternative tours to suit every interest and preference. Whether you're a wine aficionado, outdoor enthusiast, or culinary connoisseur, Traverse City invites you to embark on a memorable journey of exploration and discovery.

Here are ten alternative things to do in Traverse City to consider for a diverse and enriching experience when visiting Northern Michigan:

FAQ Exploring Traverse City: Beyond the Northern Michigan Asylum

What is the Grand Traverse Commons?

The Grand Traverse Commons, also known as the Traverse City State Hospital, is a historic site in Traverse City, Michigan, originally built as a mental health facility in the late 19th century. It has since been repurposed into a vibrant mixed-use development featuring shops, restaurants, offices, and residential units.

How can I explore the Grand Traverse Commons?

Visitors can explore the Grand Traverse Commons by taking guided tours, strolling through the landscaped grounds, or dining at one of the on-site restaurants. The property also hosts events, farmers' markets, and art exhibitions throughout the year.

What are some notable features of the Grand Traverse Commons?

The Grand Traverse Commons is renowned for its stunning Victorian-Italianate architecture, expansive green spaces, and historic charm. Visitors can admire the intricate details of the buildings, relax in the surrounding gardens, or enjoy panoramic views of Traverse City from the iconic water tower.

Can I shop and dine at the Grand Traverse Commons?

Yes, the Grand Traverse Commons boasts a variety of boutiques, galleries, and eateries housed within its historic buildings. Visitors can shop for unique gifts, artwork, and local products, or dine at restaurants offering diverse cuisine options, from casual fare to fine dining.

Is the Grand Traverse Commons open to the public?

Yes, the Grand Traverse Commons is open to the public year-round. Visitors are welcome to explore the grounds, shop, dine, and attend events hosted at the site. Guided tours are also available for those interested in learning more about the history and architecture of this iconic destination.

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