GTPulse Weekend Planner: Experience the Uncommon at the Grand Traverse Commons
The weather is noticeably cooler, and somehow still humid as we stand on the sidewalk at the Grand Traverse Commons waiting for our tour guide to arrive.
“I need you to fill out some paperwork that allows me to kill you,” she says dryly, and my mom, sister son and husband all immediately laugh in tandem, along with me.
This is the humor of our tour guide, Vanessa Vance—deadpan with a wry wit —and it is absolutely perfect.
Vanessa had just finished the 6th grade when her father, Dr. Phillip Smith, made the announcement that he had accepted the role of superintendent of the psychiatric facility in northern Michigan, and that she and her family would be accompanying him to Traverse City in the summer of 1973.
When she arrived, she was quickly immersed in the culture of the facility. Her family’s home was just a block away from the hospital. She rode her bike, played Frisbee on the grand lawn, oftentimes with patients, and slept next to a BB gun for a few weeks “just in case.”
“This place was the training ground for the smoking Olympics,” she says commenting about the patients’ penchant for nicotine. “Patients were always asking me for cigarettes,” she snickers. “I was 12-years-old…My childhood was completely normal.”
The first portion of the tour starts more in the present than the past, “The Traverse City Record Eagle headline from June 6th, 1998 declared the abandoned State Hospital could not be saved,” Vanessa explains. “But, a man by the name of Ray Minervini had other plans.”
It seems the Minervini group acquired the property for just $1 with a commitment to restore its history and elegance.
Twenty years and over $120 million later, that commitment to restoring all 27 buildings and 63 acres continues.
Vanessa tells us about the architecture, its expansive size—building 50 is nearly a 1/4 mile long from wing to wing—its Victorian Italianate-style, which was modeled in accordance with the Kirkbride plan that features large windows and towering spires.
“It was never meant to look like a hospital,” Vanessa says.
Each patient room had a view of the outside, a direct supply of light, sunshine and fresh air. Patients were treated with dignity. Beauty was a part of the therapy and patients found a sense of purpose through farming and other work.
Groundbreaking therapies were developed on the campus of the asylum. A lobotomist even put down his orbitoclast after finding success with a drug called serpasil/resperine, an option still used to treat schizophrenia.
As we make our way around what would have been the men’s wing of building 50 and into the chapel (Kirkbride Hall), Vanessa paints a picture of patients gathering for church services, dances and other social gatherings. I’m imagining the gatherings when Vanessa proposes an experiment, “We could test the acoustics. Would you like me to sing?”
Obviously our answer is a resounding yes and Vanessa belts out a refrain, a cappella with perfect pitch, holding a note without wavering for a solid 60 seconds before breaking for applause and a curtsy.
“Well, thank you very much,” she says and we continue the tour.
Inside one of the cottages slated for renovation, Vanessa makes a joke about bats and ghosts.
I instinctively run my fingers through my hair, shuddering at the thought of bats. My mom reaches out for my hand and both our hearts are beating a little faster by the time we reach the attic of the cottage.
We didn’t see a bat, or a ghost for that matter, but somehow, Vanessa’s playful suggestion enhanced the tour even more.
“This floor might be a little unstable,” she says. “Don’t walk on the planks if you can see light shining through.”
That’s just good advice, no matter the situation.
For Vanessa, telling her father’s story is a personal mission. He was loved by his staff and patients, but left his post in 1983 after a series of cuts.
“The switchboard operator retired and the state decided not to replace the position. That was the final straw for my father.”
Vanessa attended two retirement parties for her father that year, but the details of one stayed with the both of them,
“The patients threw him a retirement party. They took turns speaking for 45 minutes before they passed a hat collecting gifts. The hat, filled with loose cigarettes, hard candies and Big Red chewing gum became my father’s most prized possession. ‘These people have nothing and they gave me everything,’ my dad said returning home after the party. He wouldn’t even let me have the Big Red. The contents of that hat became his prized possession.”
Two hours later, after a ghost story told inside the iconic steam tunnel, we reach the end of the tour.
We leave the grounds with a deep knowledge of Traverse City history, architectural design, Markham bricks and mental health treatments.
But, thanks to Vanessa, this was more than a history lesson. It was an expertly shared memoir— a tour of a beautifully restored property interlaced with the childhood memories of a woman who never thought she would be sharing her “perfectly normal” childhood more than forty years after leaving the grounds.
“The fact of the matter is none of this should be here. It was closed in 1989, abandoned for over a decade and slated to be demolished. And, yet, here we are.”
Tours – Find out more about group tours and private tours.
Find more at thevillagetc.com/dine
Coffee, Cider, Wine & Brews:
Hiking & Trails:
The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is surrounded by 480 acres of preserved parkland including the historic Men’s and Women’s walk, Botanic Gardens and The Grand Traverse Commons Natural Area which features140 acres of unpaved trails for hiking, biking and cross-county skiing. Find more at thevillagetc.com/explore
Kirkbride Hall: The historic Kirkbride Hall is available for weddings, meetings and events. Find more at kirkbridehall.com
Weekender Pro Tip: Book a private tour with Vanessa Vance for a truly unique experience. And, don’t forget the hiking gear—there are acres of trails surrounding the Commons that you won’t want to miss!