Nature therapy or “forest bathing,” the immersion of individuals in the great outdoors, is popular today as a means of clearing the mind and building immunity and good health. But it’s not a new concept. The benefits of humans healing through elements of the natural world—exposure to plants, trees, light, air— were essential to the philosophy of 19th-century psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride and his design of environments for the treatment of mental illnesses.

The “Kirkbride Plan” emphasized beautiful architecture with light and airy spaces in park-like settings. Dr. Kirkbride applied his concept to the construction of dozens of hospital compounds across the U.S. including the Northern Michigan Asylum, which opened in Traverse City in 1885 under the direction of Dr. James Decker Munson. He was an early advocate of treating, not just housing, the mentally ill, and believed in beauty, nature and work as therapy, to give patients a sense of self-worth and purpose through tasks, exercise, vocational training and socializing. The sprawling complex, anchored by the Victorian Italianate main structure with its red-topped spires, eventually grew to a self-sufficient campus of dozens of buildings on 650 acres. It featured landscaped grounds with an arboretum planted by Munson, and a dairy farm, vegetable gardens and spaces for canning fruit, furniture-making and other trades.

After more than a century of serving the mentally ill, as well as those afflicted with typhoid, tuberculosis, diphtheria, influenza and other ailments, the renamed Traverse City State Hospital closed in 1989. It was shuttered  until 2002, when it was acquired by Michigan builder Raymond Minervini, who envisioned the impressive but derelict structures as a center for shopping, dining, entertainment, professional services and residences just a mile from Traverse City’s downtown.

“He took a leap off a cliff, together with the community,” says Raymond Minervini Jr., vice president-partner of the Minervini Group, of his father’s bid to redevelop the one-of-a-kind, 27-building, 63-acre property now known as the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. “We asked people to imagine a new vision for the neighborhood. To imagine the adaptive reuse. That was the big challenge. Not to ignore or forget what it was.”

A New Vision

The very elements that made Kirkbride facilities unique presented hurdles in redevelopment, says Minervini. “The main buildings are grand, big and beautiful. Full of air and light. That was part of the therapy, to create a beautiful environment.” However, he explains, “They are challenging buildings to repurpose,” citing two-foot thick walls, small rooms and wide corridors. “That’s just the opposite of what you traditionally want, which is large rooms and smaller corridors.”

That design is evident in the Mercato, on the lower level of Building 50, the 380,000-square foot centerpiece of the campus. Flanking a spacious center hallway, shops and dining spots are tucked into alcoves accented by brick arches. The dozen-plus independent boutiques are a source for local art, new and used books, antiques, jewelry, Michigan-themed wearables and home goods. The weekly outdoor farmers’ market moves into the Mercato for the winter months.

A variety of eateries, from the lively Red Spire Brunch House to Trattoria Stella, noted for fresh takes on Italian cuisine, are housed in the Mercato. Step outdoors and stroll the grounds to the compound’s one-time fire station, laundry and other utility buildings converted into food and beverage outlets. Find bread heaven at Pleasanton Bakery, where naturally unleavened loaves made of Michigan grains are “fed” by a 20-year-old starter, and scones, cookies, croissants, tarts and pizzas roll out of the wood-fired brick oven. Sample Left Foot Charley’s wine and hard cider at its window-walled urban winery and tasting room, and Earthen Ales’ small batch beers at the brewery under the water tower. Owners of Spanglish—she from Traverse City, he from Mexico—apply their healthy spa food experience to their menu of from-scratch tacos, tamales and tostadas.

Still on The Village at Grand Traverse Common’s drawing board is conversion of one of the buildings into lodging. “It’s our hope and intent to have a small, boutique hotel on the site,” according to Minervini. Currently, the company’s only overnight option is the 2,700-square-foot Kirkbride Suite, which sleeps up to 10 on two levels of the original chapel.

Guided walking tours take visitors behind the scenes to experience and photograph Village at Grand Traverse Commons complex—including its underground steam tunnel—during the daytime and eerie twilight hours. Outdoors, the arboretum, Botanic Garden and 480 acres of hills, meadow and woodlands invite hiking, bicycling and snowshoeing. “It’s a peaceful setting,” says Minervini. And, just as it was when it was when founded in 1885, “a most therapeutic environment.”

This article originally appeared in the 2017 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

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Kath Usitalo is the author of three books, “Secret Upper Peninsula: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure,” “100 Things to Do in the Upper Peninsula Before You Die” and “100 Things to Do on Mackinac Island Before You Die.”