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Nothing Crazy About Living in This Former Insane Asylum

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Here now, Past Lives, in which Curbed contributor Chris Berger explores what some of the country's most interesting residential buildings used to be before they became livable homes. Care to suggest a building with a fascinating past life? Do drop us a line.

With its seemingly well-adjusted residents and shoppers, alluring historic architecture, and ample green space, the Village at Grand Traverse Commons in Traverse City, Michigan, resembles a saccharine Thomas Kincade print come to life. So it's hard to imagine that for a century this surreal setting was home to some of the state's most mentally disturbed residents. Today, the asylum and its bucolic surroundings have been transformed into a sprawling mixed-use development, with homes, offices, and independent businesses like a bakery, a cheesecake store, and a wine bar.

? Through the early 1800s, the mentally ill were often stashed away in jails. Psychiatrist Thomas Kirkbride didn't think this was very nice. He believed that with some tenderness and fresh air, patients could conquer their disorders. His Kirkbride Plan served as a model for state-run mental health facilities constructed throughout the Victorian era. Detroit-based architect Gordon W. Lloyd implemented Kirkbride's principles in his design for the Northern Michigan Asylum. Opened in 1885, the Italianate-style brick main building had a central administrative wing with residential wings on both sides, one for each gender. Cottages and support buildings sprung up to meet the growing population; at its peak, the hospital was home to 3,000 patients.

? According to accounts, life at the Northern Michigan Asylum was no "American Horror Story." Straitjackets were banned, and patients lived in 10-by-10 rooms with 13-foot ceilings and 8-foot tall windows that overlooked the natural landscape. The residents contributed to the self-sufficient asylum as they built furniture, cared for the farm animals, and grew fruits and vegetables.






? But the Kirkbride Plan benefits were unsubstantiated and fell out of favor. In the 20th century, other mental health treatments were implemented at the campus. The main building's wings were abandoned in the 1970s, and the complex closed in 1989. Over the next decade, it was mostly vacant, a favorite destination for thrill seekers. In 1998, a city redevelopment board sought to eradicate the 387,000-square-foot main building, but a nonprofit group formed and pressed for a preservation-minded developer. They got their wish.






? The Minervini family is responsible for the hospital's resuscitation. In 2002, Raymond Minervini acquired the 63-acre property for $1. He and his family formed a company, the Minervini Group, and commenced a piecemeal conversion of the 27 buildings. In 2005, the 150,000-square-foot south wing opened with a mix of residences, offices, and independent shops and eateries.






? Meanwhile, the firehouse has become a bakery, the potato peeling shack a cheesecake store, and the laundry a wine bar and fair-trade coffee shop. So far, $60 million has been spent to rehabilitate 700,000 square feet. When the hammers stop, an estimated 1,000 people will live at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons and 800 will work there.






? The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is an enclave with its own identity. It hosts a weekly farmers market, Easter egg hunt, and beer and dairy festivals. Trails surround the campus, which includes a historic arboretum. The residences appeal to all ages and incomes and span from 300-square-foot studio apartments to 3,800-square-foot luxury condos. As of this writing, three luxury condos are available for around $500K each.


? Historic asylums are good for more than just horror movie sets. Though they have negative associations, the complexes are ready-made hamlets that often feature excellent examples of architecture and craftsmanship. The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is considered a source of community pride and has proven an economic boon to the area. There is nothing crazy about that.

· The Village at Grand Traverse Commons [official site]
· From Ex-Mental Hospital to a New Mixed-Use Life [NYT]
· Granting Asylum [Remodeling]
· Hometown Highlights: The Village at Grand Traverse Commons [Meal Tickets]