"Bldg. 69 Vegetable Washing & Peeling became Underground Cheesecake Company." 
Photo © Trish Petrat, 2009,
Article by Matt Tomlinson

Traverse City's Village at the Commons is a must-see place.  A strong sense of community has existed there since the buildings were first erected in 1885. The expansive lawns, flowing streams, and adjoining woods have always been a place to seek serenity.  First a little history to clear up the confusion that probably comes from the idea that the property at hand is either an asylum or a Victorian-styled village with shops and artists.

The answer may surprise some; it has been both throughout its 124-year history.  The State of Michigan built it as an asylum to house Northern Michigan's residents needing psychiatric help and rehabilitation. The facility began simply with the construction of Building 50, the largest of all of the buildings on the grounds. The facility quickly expanded to include additional buildings on more land.

Although the word asylum often has a negative connotation, this asylum operated differently. The operators believed in therapy through work and beauty, and such procedures as lobotomies and the usage of straightjackets were prohibited. The state hospital was self-sufficient for many years because of the farming and other paid work the patients did. Because of this philosophy, the hospital became one of the city's major employers (my own grandpa and grandma from opposite sides of the family tree worked here). The State would later mandate that making or asking the patients to work was wrong and prohibited this kind of treatment method. This change doomed the hospital, which finally closed its doors in 1989.

The buildings remained vacant until the Minervini Group began renovating them in the year 2000. The project is one of the largest restorations projects in U.S history, and as of 2009 Building 50 is now largely renovated. It contains many shops that sell clothing, bikes, candy, and art; it also houses the well-known restaurant Stellas. Many of the outer buildings are undergoing renovation and are becoming apartments, hotels, bakeries, and fair-trade coffee shops.

The sense of community never went away either. With the new face of the Village have come festivities, including wine and beer festivals that attract many local brewers and wineries. The grounds often host impromptu Ultimate Frisbee games and also attract many people looking to lounge on a beautiful day. The woods are open to all sorts of hiking and biking opportunities. Outdoor enthusiasts can take in the striking views and enjoy the sight of nature within in a city center. The trails are also home to numerous downhill and freestyle mountain biking trails that lure an even wider slice of the populace to this stunning natural and historic area.

A visit to Traverse City wouldn't be complete without at least seeing these buildings and their glorious architecture. Once at the Commons, curiosity will get the best of most people and a trip inside and around becomes a must.  The Commons stands for what Traverse City is becoming—a tight-knit community built on the beauty of the area and by the creativity of the people, who offer it to visitors as a truly gratifying Northern Michigan experience. 

Traverse City native Matt Tomlinson enjoys the community aspect of the city as well as the natural beauty of the outlying areas. He is currently pursuing a degree in renewable enegy technology from Northwestern Michigan College. Among his hobbies number writing, cycling, cross-country skiing, and other outdoor activities.

© Matt Tomlinson, 2009