Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 18, 2013

State hospital gone but employee reunions continue


---- — TRAVERSE CITY — The former Traverse City State Hospital closed in 1989, but former employees, who say they were as close as family, still gather for a reunion each year.

The eighth reunion in 20 years will happen next week.

Shirley Rogers, Robert Maddox and Art Hogarth, all former hospital employees, plan to attend. So do two or three History Center of Traverse City archival volunteers who want to talk informally with the retirees and collect stories, archivist Peg Siciliano said.

The hospital, its buildings and grounds have played a major role in the life of Traverse City both as a state hospital for 105 years and as the redeveloped Grand Traverse Commons today. The hospital is the only one of Michigan’s four “Kirkbride” asylums to survive the wrecking ball.

The sprawling state mental institution was called the Northern Michigan Asylum when its first patients arrived in 1885. Its construction, along with lumbering, helped launch Traverse City’s first boom during the last two decades of the 1800s.

Today, the hospital’s massive Building 50 has been renovated into the mixed-use Village at the Commons by developer Ray Minervini. Three other cottages have been converted into independent and assisted living “continuum of care” units operated by the Grand Traverse Pavilions, the state’s largest county-owned medical care facility. The Commons’ preserved barns at the south end of the grounds now are part of the voter-approved Historic Barns Park.

Rogers, 77, helped organize the first gathering in April 1993 by offering to host it at her cottage. About 175 people showed up.

Since then, summer reunions have recurred in 1997, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2009 (the 20th reunion) and 2010. Attendance from 1997 to through 2009, ranged from 66 to 87, Rogers said.

The 2010 reunion was special. A total 153 showed for two reasons.

Ray Minervini, developer of the Village at the Commons, invited the former state employees to have their reunion picnic on the lawn, while his sister, Mini Minervini, organized and arranged a tour through the redevelopment for the employees.

William Decker, author of the comprehensive 320-page “Northern Michigan Asylum: A History of the Traverse City State Hospital,” also spoke at the 2010 reunion.

Rogers, Maddox and Hogarth, provided some of the pictures and other material Decker used in the book.

Rogers name is mentioned a few times in the book. An image of herattendant nurse certificate appears on page 157. Today, she has created a special place for the book in her house.

“I’m quite proud of that book,” said the former attendant nurse who worked at the hospital from 1957 to 1989. She was 22 when she started.

The hospital housed about 3,000 patients then and employed about 1,000 people, she said. Fewer than 100 patients and a skeleton crew remained when she retired at age 53, just months before the hospital closed.

The Northern Michigan Asylum was considered a humane form of treatment in the late 1880s and its location in northern Michigan a “curative” treatment. “Beauty is therapy,” was a favorite phrase of Dr. James Munson, its first superintendent. Mentally ill people then often were locked away in overcrowded prisons for what was effectively a life sentence.

The asylum’s design and architecture was influenced by Thomas Story Kirkbride, a 19th century American Quaker physician and mental hospital director whose “moral treatment” concepts affected asylum construction for decades.

Maddox, 75, a ward supervisor and nursing attendant who worked 30 years at the hospital starting in 1961, is also a reunion regular as well as president of the State Employees Retirement Association Chapter 21, which meets monthly.

“We were mostly like a big family up there and we all worked together and most of us got along, he said when asked why he went to the reunions. Art Hogarth, a former attendant and later safety officer from 1953 to 1984, made a home video of many of its artifacts in 1992.

The group will gather from noon to 4 p.m Tuesday at the Silver Lake Recreation Area in Garfield Township.