Some of the large state asylums for the mentally ill built in the late 1800s were designed with the idea that natural beauty has a healing effect. And architects designed the buildings to be majestic… not just institutional looking. In the decades since the asylums closed, their stately grounds remain valuable. But many of the fine buildings either have been torn down or are facing demolition. Some are being partially renovated for new uses. The GLRC’s Bob Allen reports on one of the very few in the country that’s being fully restored:
Some of the large state asylums for the mentally ill built in the late 1800s
were designed with the idea that natural beauty has a healing effect. And
architects designed the buildings to be majestic… not just institutional
looking. In the decades since the asylums closed, their stately grounds
remain valuable. But many of the fine buildings either have been torn
down or are facing demolition. Some are being partially renovated for
new uses. The GLRC’s Bob Allen reports on one of the very few in the
country that’s being fully restored:
Gently winding roads guide you through views of century-old trees and
rolling lawns that make up the surroundings of this old asylum. Open
meadows are remnants of the farm where residents raised all their own
food. The physical labor and park-like setting contributed to their
Ray Minervini loves the surroundings… but he says the buildings
themselves added a healing dimension.
“If you stand on the front lawn of this building you don’t have to be a
student of architecture to appreciate that it’s a thing of beauty. I mean the
proportions of the building, the size of the windows, the pitch of the roof,
the height of the spires. It’s the way that we used to construct buildings. We
don’t do that anymore.”
The four story brick and stone structures soar above the trees. Developer
Ray Minervini says they were built to last 500 years or more.
He thinks they deserve to be preserved as much as the natural
“The brick you’re looking at here were laid 121 years ago. The stone
foundations, you can see about 4 and a half feet of limestone, they
actually laid stone into the ground as opposed to concrete.
Those stone walls are 2 and a half feet thick.”
But across the country many of these large state mental hospitals have
fallen into ruin and are being demolished.
Kate Allen is graduate student in the architecture program at Columbia
University in New York City. She studies asylums designed according
to the plan of psychiatrist Thomas Kirkbride. He adapted principles of
care from the Quakers. They include plenty of light and fresh air in a
clean idyllic setting.
Allen has found records for 64 asylums built in the Kirkbride style.
Twenty of them have been torn down. Of those remaining she considers
a dozen under threat right now, and she thinks the Minervini Group in
Michigan offers the only existing model for renovating an entire site.
“Not only are they preserving the smaller structures and the Kirkbride
core, but through the historic easement, the landscape it can’t be
encroached on with development. It gives you that feeling that it was a
But the Northern Michigan Asylum barely escaped destruction. After the
hospital closed it sat vacant for nearly a quarter century. Gaping holes in
the roof caused a lot of water damage. An outside developer wanted to
demolish and build new, but a hometown group stepped in and blocked
the wrecking ball. Then along came Ray Minervini with his vision for a
mix of new uses in the historic buildings.
Raymond Minervini is Ray’s son and business partner. He works on
marketing the project, and he says the people who believe in the vision
and are willing to invest in it are making it happen.
“And in a way they’re co-developers too because they’re stepping
forward with their capital to purchase space or lease space to establish a
business or create a home. That’s what makes the preservation possible.
Otherwise this is just a building waiting to fall down.”
The Minervini Group has been working on the redevelopment for nearly
six years. It’s a huge enterprise.
The core of the old state hospital and surrounding buildings represent a
million square feet for redevelopment, and Ray Minervini says that
translates into a 200 to 300 million dollar project… but it’s going
forward without a lot of fanfare.
“We’re doing it in phases, one section at a time, so it doesn’t appear so
big. We are under the radar screen, but collectively when you look at the
whole site and realize what that equates to it’s the largest rehab project
for sure in the Midwest.”
The Minervini Group has completed the first segment of what they call
The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Already built and fully
occupied are business and condo spaces plus a restaurant and art gallery.
Ray Minervini says there’s still a long way to go, but with lights on and
people in the building there’s a growing sense the place is coming back
For the GLRC, I’m Bob Allen.