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The Northern Michigan Asylum

Updated on April 24, 2014
Thomas Kirkbride
Thomas Kirkbride
A plate showing the Kirkbride System of architecture
A plate showing the Kirkbride System of architecture

The Kirkbride System

Prior to the establishing of state hospitals for those with mental illness, many of the afflicted were relegated to county jails, private homes, and the basements of public buildings. With the push from Dorothea Dix, an advocate for the mentally ill, New Jersey built its' first state ran asylum, using the Kirkbride System.

Thomas Kirkbride, a Philidelphia pyschiatrist, was the superintendent of the New Jersey Lunatic Asylum, and helped guide its construction, using a plan he developed based off of Samuel Tuke's idea of 'Moral Treatment' of the mentally ill.

Kirkbride wrote On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane with Some Remarks on Insanity and Its Treatment, which established the concept of the Kirkbride System.

In this system, it was believed that the moral and humane treatment of the mentally ill would eventually come to be reciprocated and would lead to less violence among the insane. Kirkbride believed that building architecture played an important part in this moral treatment.

Typical floor plans included long hallways, laid out in a staggered formation, so that each wing received direct sunlight and fresh air circulation. The buildings were very large in construction, and the surrounding grounds were usually sprawling and everything was ornately decorated. Landscaping was as important as the building construction.

The Kirkbride System also included keeping the patients involved, either with onsite farming or woodworking or other activities that benefited both the patients and the asylum.

Between 1840 and 1890, nearly all asylums constructed followed the Kirkbride System. Eventually, the system's effectiveness was questioned when compared to the cost of upkeep of the buildings, and the idea of large, ornate asylums on sprawling, grassy grounds was abandoned. Many of the Kirkbride buildings still stand today, the Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane being one of them.

The Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane

The Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane was initially established in 1881 in an effort to handle the large patient populations overflowing the asylums in Kalamazoo and Pontiac, which were already in operation.

The asylum was located on 135 acres in Traverse City, Michigan and was constructed by architect Gordon W. Lloyd, with the main building, known as Building 50, constructed in accordance with the Kirkbride Plan. It opened in 1885 with 43 patients.

Dr. James Decker Munson was the asylum's first superintendent, from 1885 to 1924. During Dr. Munson's tenure, the hospital expanded, adding 12 cottages and 2 infirmaries. The institution became the city's largest employer and contributed to the overall growth of Traverse City.

The gravestone of Traverse Colantha Walker
The gravestone of Traverse Colantha Walker
An example of hydrotherapy. Note the full body immersion in the water.
An example of hydrotherapy. Note the full body immersion in the water.

Moral Treatment

Dr. Munson was a firm believer in 'beauty is therapy' and 'work as therapy'. Thus the patients were treated with kindness, pleasure, and comfort, and this was also reflected throughout the grounds of the asylum.

Several greenhouses were in operation, as well as a farm, established in 1885. The farm grew to include milk cows and beef cattle, chickens, pigs, and vegetables. The farm even produced a world champion milk cow, Traverse Colantha Walker. A grave marker honors her achievements, and can still be located on the property today.

The greenhouses and farm, along with furniture construction, fruit canning and other manufacturing jobs kept the asylum completely self-sufficient.

Traditional methods of restraint, like straitjackets, were explicitly forbidden. Instead, 'modern' methods of treatment, like hydrotherapy, were promoted. In hydrotherapy, agitated patients were placed in a tub and then covered, so only their head was exposed. Often times, a towel or some sort of covering was placed over the patient's eyes. The patient was then left in the bath, with the water at a maintained temperature of 92°F to 97°F. The idea was the lack of stimulation would calm the patient down without having to restrain them.

An electroconvulsive therapy machine
An electroconvulsive therapy machine

Other Forms of Treatment

Of course, hydrotherapy and work therapy weren't the only forms of treatment used.

The reoccurring belief was that an intense shock to the body system would potentially 'reset' the brain. Thus procedures like insulin shock therapy (also referred to as an 'insulin coma') became widely practiced.

Treatment for the mentally ill was rather touch and go. Particular therapies would be used for a time frame until they were proven to either not improve the patient's quality of life or were deemed detrimental to their health.

Frontal lobotomies were often performed as well as electroshock therapy. None of these were as effective as heavily medicating the patient to the point of a state of constant sedation.

All of these techniques were used at the asylum in Traverse City.

The Later Years

In 1926, the James Decker Munson Hospital was established on the grounds in honor of the work Dr. Munson did to further the asylum along. in 1950, The Munson Medical Center was built, and has become the largest hospital in Northern Michigan.

The hospital, while originally established to serve the mentally ill, expanded its use during outbreaks of tuberculosis, typhoid, influenza, polio, and diphtheria. Eventually, the facilities were also used to care for the elderly, used to train nurses, and served as a rehab facility for drug addicts.

As ideas regarding mental health changed and improved, the need for asylums like Northern Michigan Asylum decreased. Though the patients were generally treated humanely there, the treatment ideals shifted from isolation to integration in public as required.

The asylum was decommissioned in 1989, and the buildings fell under local government ownership in 1990.

Building 50, as it looks today.
Building 50, as it looks today.

Today and the Future

Not all of the buildings remain today. Building 50, the original building, still stands, thanks to the efforts of The Minervini Group - a group dedicated to the history of the area known as the Grand Traverse Commons. The upper floors have been converted into condominiums and the lower floor is home to several retail shops, a few restaurants, and a winery.

A farmer's market sets up on Sundays in the lower level of the building as well.

Several of the surrounding buildings have been remodeled, and converted in to a bakery, a winery, a few private practice medical offices, and various eateries.

The remaining buildings are not scheduled to be remodeled, but the owners have opened them back up to guided tours.

The area is currently referred to as The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

The grounds are completely accessible and one can walk the same paths that so many patients did so long ago.

The buildings are privately owned, and the owners are reluctant to commit to any further renovation for the future.

Northern Michigan Asylum: A History of the Traverse City State Hospital
Northern Michigan Asylum: A History of the Traverse City State Hospital

A very well researched book detailing the history of the Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane, including original documentation from the asylum.


An overhead view of the remaining asylum buildings


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