The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a 63-acred wooded campus dotted with elegant Victorian Italianate buildings, is a vibrant part of Traverse City’s food, shopping and lifestyle scene and is also one of the most storied redevelopment projects in the nation.
The history behind what locals know as The Commons, is an unconventional one. Built in 1881 and opened in 1885, the Northern Michigan Asylum (later changed to The Traverse City State Hospital) was quickly expanded under the supervision of Dr. James Decker Munson. The asylum was a self-sufficient operation, growing its own crops, raising livestock and even running its own electricity. The grounds were populated with an abundance of trees and flowers which aligned with Dr. Munson’s “beauty is therapy” philosophy. Dr. Munson also believed that “work is therapy.” Patients were encouraged to gain a sense of purpose by finding a form of work to do. The patients farmed, gardened, canned, tended to the farm animals and more, which contributed greatly to the hospital’s self-sufficient ways.
The most famous of the farm animals was a dairy cow named Colantha Walker, who is buried on the grounds today. In 1926 she was the highest milk producer in the world, producing a total of 22,918 pounds of milk in a single year. In her lifetime she produced 200,114.9 pounds of milk, and when she died, because she was so well-loved, she was buried on the grounds with a large headstone to mark her grave. Today there is an annual Colantha Walker Dairy Festival that celebrates her life.
Not only was the State Hospital an asylum for the mentally ill, it also served as a hospital for patients who had contracted various diseases during outbreaks, offered treatment for drug addicts, was a home for the elderly and offered training to nurses. After the asylum was closed in 1989, it sat abandoned for the next 10 years and the irreplaceable architecture was set for the wrecking ball.
In 2002 visionary developer Ray Minervini Sr. and his team, the Minervini Group, assumed ownership of the State Hospital, renaming it The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Since then the Minervini Group has turned the commons into a buzzing community hub. Although there is more work to be done, (about half of the total project has been finished) as of early 2017, the campus’s centerpiece structure, Building 50, a 387,000-square-foot, three-story behemoth, is now renovated and occupied with a mix of residential, retail, restaurants, an event venue, Cordia, a senior residential community, and an ever increasing number of businesses and entrepreneurs.
Today the Commons is bustling with activity. People head there to walk dogs or go on hikes. It’s a perfect place to go on a historical tunnel tour, meet friends for a hot cup of coffee, sip Northern Michigan wine, enjoy a delicious local meal, or rent a mountain bike and ride trails in the hilly park adjacent. Between the shopping and the beauty, it’s a Traverse City destination that can’t be missed.