Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 3, 2013

Writing on the walls at former State Hospital

By Anne Stanton astanton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

— TRAVERSE CITY — Upstairs in a cottage attic at the former Traverse City State Hospital, Miss Mabel Davis wrote a cryptic note — “cleaned house — April 23, 1904.”

Down in the basement, someone wrote “colder than hell” on April 6, 1916. The “bay froze … is now 30 inches thick.” Another wrote of a “fearful blizzard” in 1901. Another scribe wrote of the U.S. declaring war against Japan.

Workers recently came upon scores of entries in the attic and basement of Cottage 29, a former women’s dormitory. They are transforming the cottage into a new office building for Munson Medical Center, said Mark Meyer, a staff designer.

“Once we did some demolition and pulled plaster off the walls, we found writing,” Meyer said.

Decades ago, the state hospital had its own large maintenance department with carpenters, plumbers and roofers, he said.

“It’s very possible a lot of this writing is from them” he said. “There was nothing there to disturb it, but pigeons and squirrels. I think some of it’s by the original builders of the building.”

Meyer’s dad worked for the state hospital as a psychiatric nurse from about 1959 to 1989. Some of the names found on the wall sound familiar, he said.

Munson workers first came across wall writing 10 years ago when they remodeled Building 27 into what’s now called the Hospitality House, a cottage near this newest renovation project.

“It was chronological; it went through the years,” Meyer said. “We added our own names before we put our wall up, just for kicks.”

With the exception of the attic chimney, drywall will cover most of the Cottage 29 postings to shield electrical and computer wiring, Meyer said

“It would be interesting if someone with a historical bent would photograph and document it before we cover it up,” Meyer said.

Much of the basement writing was done with a big, graphic carpenter pencil. Upstairs the posts are written with a finer pencil in elegant loops.

The staff is working with the state of Michigan Historic Preservation Office, which has numerous building requirements, such as insulation and finishes, but the office hasn’t asked to preserve the historic writing, Meyer said.

The writing is one of many discoveries at the hospital site, now known as The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

Especially fascinating, said Meyer, is a poem carved into soft brick with a butter knife in 1929. It can be found on the exterior wall of Stella Trattoria’s back entrance near a window. A mural of Disney dwarves was found in the Building 50 Mercato, he added.

Some of the writings and murals were captured in the book, Angels in the Architecture, by the late Heidi Johnson, he said.

Munson will use Cottage 29 to provide office space to those displaced by the future cancer center. Offices will also move from the fifth and sixth floor of the D building to provide more space for patients, Meyer said.

Meyer urged interested local historians interested in taking photographs to call Jim Fegan, construction manager at 935-6727.

“They need to do it soon,” he said.