TRAVERSE CITY – The area’s Chamber of Commerce called the renovation and re-purposing of the old Traverse City State Hospital “one of America’s largest historic preservation and reuse projects.” Even the New York Times picked up on the significance of the ongoing work, with a feature article three years ago published under the headline, “From Ex-Mental Hospital to a New Mixed-Use Life.”
They refer to The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, where general contractor Cunningham Limp, its subcontractors and the building trades have been busy this year on a $30.7 million project transforming a major building at the former Traverse City State Hospital (and before that, the Northern Michigan Asylum), into senior residence space.
The focus of the building trades’ work this year is renovating part of the 388,000 square-foot “Building 50,” which was built in 1885 and is the visual centerpiece of the sprawling 63-acre campus. Work has actually been ongoing at the campus since 2000, and to date, ten buildings and some 325,000 square feet have now been redeveloped, including feature restaurants, wineries, boutiques, 130 private residences, and more than 70 small businesses.
Grand Traverse Senior Living, LLC purchased the remaining undeveloped portion of Building 50 from the Minervini Group to complete the project’s rebirth. The project is being developed by Cordia Cypress, LLC. Construction of the Cordia Senior Residential Club is expected to produce 50-60 permanent local jobs.
The Cordia at Grand Traverse Commons will include 109 private residences and include a variety of amenities, such as a health and wellness spa, a theatre, pub, and arts, educational and social programs. It will be a year-round, luxury residential community designed for both independent seniors and those who require assistance.
“We talk about it here in our meetings all the time, how unique this place is, and how privileged we are to be working on this project,” said Cunningham Limp General Supt. Larry Wisniewski. “There were 10 of these types of facilities around the Midwest, and nine have been torn down. So the fact that this has been saved is great for all of us – the trades, the contractors, the seniors, the whole community.”
The site of the former hospital and asylum offer a remarkable history. The original 1885 Italianate-style main brick building had a central administrative wing and residential wings on both sides. Cottages and support buildings were erected later to serve the rest of the mental hospital, that at its peak hosted 3,500 patients while employing as many as 1,000.
The facility’s founder, psychiatrist Thomas Kirkbride, believed that with the proper therapy, a job to do and exposure to natural light, nature and fresh air, patients could best be cured of their disorders. Patients built furniture, tended to gardens and cared for farm animals. Eventually the campus spread to some 800 acres on the site west of Traverse City and included more than 50 buildings. It was one of northern Michigan’s largest employers.
Over the course of the last century funding fell off and approaches to mental health treatment changed. The facility closed its doors as a state hospital in 1989.
The Minervini Group has led the historic renovation of Building 50 and other buildings on the site of the former state hospital since initial redevelopment started in 2000. This was on the heels of separate redevelopment efforts by Grand Traverse Pavilions and Munson Medical Center on the northern portions of the site.
Wisniewski said the Minervini Group’s decision to put a new roof over Building 50 about a decade ago was key to saving the building’s interior and allowing the subsequent development. This summer, about 140 building trades workers are currently on the job, renovating the final one-third of Building 50. The former patient rooms were 10-foot by 10-foot, and many walls have been busted out to make larger spaces. The room walls, Wisniewski said, were made of solid 22-inch thick brick. “Lots of demo, lots of manpower,” he said. “Most of the walls were taken down by hand.”
The new rooms for the senior tenants will be larger, averaging about 800 square feet. Wisniewski said Building 50 has one four-story section and two that are five-story – and the building trades on this project “are working all over the place.”
He added: “the trades have been excellent. It’s been a tough schedule, we had a tough winter, but they have worked very well together.”