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Northern Michigan Asylum, Traverse City MI

Northern Michigan Asylum was established in 1885 as the demand for a third psychiatric hospital, in addition to those established in Kalamazoo and Pontiac, began to grow.

Long before the advent of drug therapy in the 1950s, the hospital staff were firm believers in the “beauty is therapy” philosophy. Patients were treated through kindness, comfort, pleasure, and beautiful flowers provided year-round by the asylum’s own greenhouses and the variety of trees planted on the grounds. Restraints, such as the straitjacket, were forbidden. Also, as part of the “work is therapy” philosophy, the asylum provided opportunities for patients to gain a sense of purpose through farming, furniture construction, fruit canning, and other trades that kept the institution fully self-sufficient. The asylum farm began in 1885 with the purchase of some milk cows and within a decade grew to include pigs, chickens, milk and meat cows, and many vegetable fields.

While the hospital was established for the care of the mentally ill, its use expanded during outbreaks of tuberculosis, typhoid, diphtheria, influenza, and polio. It also cared for the elderly, served as a rehab for drug addicts, and was used to train nurses. During the mid-late 1980s, the institution saw a heavy influx of drug users who sought relief from their addictions. With the increasing success of drug therapies in the 1970s, many mental patients improved sufficiently that by the latter half of the decade the Kirkbride and the other Victorian buildings were vacant. This, in addition to changes in mental health care philosophy, the decline of institutionalization, and cuts in funding, forced the closure of the Traverse City Regional Psychiatric Hospital in 1989, with a loss of over 200 jobs to the local economy.

Photographer: Sarah Handley

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