We parked the rental and stood before the three story building. It was late afternoon and the asylum’s walls were slashed with the shadows of tree limbs. The lawns were empty except for one bike resting against a light pole.

When we read the Grand Traverse Commons, a new business and entertainment center just a mile from downtown Traverse City, was located in a former mental hospital it quickly moved to the top of our most-see list.

Completed 130 years ago, the asylum was built during a revolutionary time in the history of mental health. The history pages on the Grand Traverse Commons website paint pictures of nightly sing-alongs and fresh flowers in every ward.

But I couldn’t help but feel a little creeped out as we roamed the empty grounds, looking for an entrance to the former asylum.

Grand Traverse Commons exterior

The staggering walls of the Grand Traverse Commons were designed to maximize airflow and natural light.

A Place For Healing

The Northern Michigan Asylum, as this place was originally called, was one of many built in the vision of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, the driver of a 19th century movement to improve the quality of mental healthcare in America.

Kirkbride believed natural light, fresh air, and a sense of purpose were necessary for proper healing, in addition to traditional medical treatments. There were pianos on every floor at the Northern Michigan Asylum. Patients tended peach and plum trees in the medical center’s greenhouses.

The building’s staggering facades and protruding wings were designed to maximize airflow and sunlight. We followed the asylum’s angular walls until we found a door into the basement.

That’s where we ate the brains.

Grand Traverse Commons basement

The basement of Grand Traverse Commons. Normally this place is hopping, but it was eerily quiet on the Sunday we visited.

From Asylum to Grand Traverse Commons

By the end of the 19th century, the conversation on mental health changed. Psychoanalysis and drug therapy replaced Kirkbride’s vision of asylums full of pianos and fresh flowers.

After a 20-year decline, the hospital shut down in 1989. The original plan was to demolish the site and sell the land to the highest bidder. Instead, a group of community leaders fought to reuse the building. Today, the Grand Traverse Commons is one of the largest preservation projects in the country, home to more than 100 businesses.

There’s a winery, a web design company, a salon and a soap store. Most of the stores were closed when we visited that Sunday afternoon, except for Trattoria Stella, an Italian restaurant in the basement.

Stella’s was packed that Sunday and without a reservation we were lucky to score seats near the kitchen.

The menu was adventurous: pig foot and mustard greens, lamb neck and gorgonzola, cow stomach and salsa. We ordered a pint of the house pale ale and the daily appetizer special: lamb brain ravioli.

When a plate of four innocent-looking pasta pockets floating in a yellow sauce arrived, I must admit, we were nervous. Greg and I popped a ravioli into our mouths before we could think too hard about the filling.

lamb brain ravioli

These innocent-looking raviolis were stuffed with a thought-provoking surprise.

At first it tasted like butter and salt, and then we tasted them: brains. The flavor was gamey and dark, similar to liver. The texture was mercifully mushy, not rubbery like I had feared. They weren’t bad, they were just … brains.

We were grateful when the waitress brought the next dish, a more recognizable beef carpaccio with parmesan.

We worked with the Grand Rapids and Traverse City tourism boards in arranging our trip to Michigan, as well as with individual companies and organizations. No one reviewed the stories we wrote in advance of publication. All opinions expressed here are our own.

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