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"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

September 11, 2009

Escape from the Asylum


I recently spent four weeks sleeping at the former Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane in Traverse City. That's it above.

That picture doesn't do it justice, though. It's a gigantic complex on about 200 acres, with maybe another 1000 acres of woods behind it. A picture from the early 1900s can be seen here.

It opened in 1885 and was abandoned in 1989. Some developers have begun renovating it, but it remains absolutely terrifying. Just one wing has been worked on, so the rest is still empty and looks like this:

I learned thanks to a book in the apartment that the renovated section was the part of the asylum which housed the most disturbed male patients. And there are apartments only on the top floor; the rest of the space is used for offices, stores, a restaurant, etc. That means at night there's almost no one around, and it's far, far away from any normal houses. Because I would arrive around midnight each evening, I never saw a single other person there.

That said, the apartment itself and everything else was beautiful. I would recommend it to anyone visiting Traverse City, as long as you aren't bothered by the psychic vibrations left over from a century of human suffering.



—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at September 11, 2009 01:01 AM

I assume you were doing this because of a clause in your great-aunt's will?

Posted by: saurabh at September 11, 2009 03:44 AM

Ya know, Digby turned out to be a woman instead of a man, which through me for a loop. So now I'm wondering???? See any ghosts?

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 11, 2009 04:09 AM


I assume you were doing this because of a clause in your great-aunt's will?

Yes. And now that $400 million is ALL MINE! SO so HAPPY! Even if the process of getting it has led to ME BEING INSTITUTIONALIZED ELSEWHERE!


Mike Meyer:

See any ghosts?

No, but I found it psychologically very oppressive. I assume this was completely self-generated. And yet.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at September 11, 2009 04:32 AM

I did some work in Glendale recently. Downtown building was a six story glass modern with only one floor occupied. The building across the street similar. The one down the street same. Each had a private garage mostly empty.

As costly as housing is in LA area, it's a solid waste that those can't/wont be converted to reasonably priced apartments.

Yeah, the commercial real estate market is gonna pick up any moment now...

Posted by: angryman@24:10 at September 11, 2009 07:48 AM

You might find this book interesting.

Posted by: gbh at September 11, 2009 08:26 AM

No Leona Helmsley, at least.

Posted by: Oarwell at September 11, 2009 09:04 AM

Right - rent's due soon and so, living in a decades-old tenement, I'm thinking I shall (shakes fist at The Recession) get the landlord to back off presently because I'm "bothered by the psychic vibrations left over from a century of human suffering."

Wait, I think that was in the lease...oh boy.

Posted by: john at September 11, 2009 10:04 AM

No, but I found it psychologically very oppressive. I assume this was completely self-generated. And yet.

Murka's first notable (and notorious) sociologist, W I Thomas, when asked what is "real," remarked famously: "That is real which is real in its consequences."

Posted by: Woody at September 11, 2009 10:14 AM

So far as a century of human suffering goes, I think it's only fair to point out that while mental illness does cause terrible suffering, Munson's philosophy as outlined in the Wikipedia article makes it sound like the hosptial wasn't exactly Bedlam.

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at September 11, 2009 11:03 AM

Twenty-odd years ago, a couple of Portland brothers started rehabbing old properties and turning them into brewpubs. Then they got really ambitious and turned a large, mostly abandoned site on the outskirts of town into a destination resort, complete with theaters, golf course, and spas. It's the old county poor farm.

As hard as it may be to believe today, Edgefield, built in 1911, served for several decades as the Multnomah County Poor Farm. Residents operated a self-sufficient environment, raising hogs, poultry, growing a variety of fruits and vegetables, operating a dairy, cannery and meat packing plant as well as working in the laundry, kitchen and hospital.

In 1947, it was renamed the Multnomah County Home and Farm and in the late fifties the farm operation was eliminated. In 1962, the facility was renamed Edgefield Manor and for the last two decades of operation, functioned as a nursing home and eventually closed in 1982.

Posted by: darrelplant at September 11, 2009 11:59 AM

You say "creepy", I say "Tiny Revolution World HQ". Same diff.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at September 11, 2009 12:58 PM

Maybe our politicians should move there.

Posted by: Edward at September 11, 2009 02:40 PM

Munson's philosophy as outlined in the Wikipedia article makes it sound like the hosptial wasn't exactly Bedlam.

There's no question the place was physically beautiful. But as for what actually went on there for 100 years, I have my doubts. There are people online who discuss being institutionalized there as children, and who described incidents where patients (including children) were beaten to death by staff.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at September 11, 2009 04:47 PM

I would be terrified of being in a place like that. Perhaps, it was humane but I doubt it.

Posted by: cemmcs at September 11, 2009 11:43 PM

Those are fantastic pics.

Posted by: N E at September 12, 2009 08:14 AM

Jon, it's very difficult to accept your theory that Wikipedia has mislead me about something.

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at September 12, 2009 03:02 PM

Ack, misled

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at September 12, 2009 03:15 PM

The electroshock treatments and lobotomies and restraints and... well, I'm pretty sure the suffering wasn't all induced by the mental illnesses themselves. Maybe an improvement from the Bedlam model, but that's a low bar.

Posted by: Shell Goddamnit at September 12, 2009 08:16 PM

"The electroshock treatments and lobotomies and restraints"

I would just like to make a few points.
Till recently, not much was known about what caused mental illness and as the individuals did demonstrate features which were not understood ( hallucinations, delusions, illusions, paranoid and violent behaviour, suicial tendencies etc), they were labelled as "crazies" and in certain situations needed to be restrained ( for their own portection sometimes and of others at other times )
I do not think lobotomies would have been performed if they knew about mental illness what we know now. Only with the most advanced technology, now we are able to study the physiolgy of different parts of the brain in real time which has demonstrated different types of abnormalities in Manic-Depressive psychosis, Schizophrenia etc.
Also, ECT is still a very useful tool in treating selected patients.
If a patient comes to ER in DTs, he is very combative and violent and restraits HAVE to be used.
So, how society treated its members "who behaved differently" is probaly related to ignorance about the conditions. Of course, 'beating to death' anyone, could never be justified.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at September 13, 2009 01:47 PM

Speaking of repurposing former mental hospitals, St. Elizabeth's in Washington, DC (where such famous Americans as Ezra Pound and John W. Hinckley, Jr. have resided) is being redeveloped as the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security. I heard a report about this on the local radio last night. I laughed and laughed.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at September 14, 2009 11:13 AM