Saturday, February 20, 2010

In Which Our Two Heroines Are Frightened By the Soul of an Old Building

One of our destinations, on our off-the-cuff weekend vaycay up north, was the Traverse City Commons. This development, which includes spendy condominiums, artists' lofts, shops and professional offices, is on the sprawling campus of what used to be the Old Traverse City State Hospital -- in fact, most of the original buildings are extant, and have either been renovated or are in the process of being so.

The hospital -- memorialized in many a young Michiganian's mind with the threat, "If you don't stop acting that way you'll wind up in Traverse City" -- was closed in the 1980's during the final phase of deinstitutionalization, and in the decades to follow the buildings had become vandal- and vagrant-ridden eyesores. A developer finally bought the entire property for the sum of one dollar, and proceeded to, after much effort, create something new and exciting.

That's what we were looking forward to experiencing, anyway. I have a familial connection to the old hospital -- my sainted Aunt Marian spent an extended stay there after having some sort of undefined psychotic breakdown in her early 20's -- so for me a visit to the grounds had an equivocal feel to it; I felt sad for my aunt, who had mightily resisted going there, but I also knew that the institution was well regarded in its time and was doing the best it could with what it had to work with in terms of medical knowledge. I was also happy to see the property being developed in what sounded like a respectful manner, with an emphasis on local artisans and entrepreneurs.

We turned into the drive, and headed through the wooded front yard of the property toward Building 50, the combination condo/indoor boutique mall that's the present focal point of the development. (A multimilliondollar hotel is in the works nearby.) The trees were pretty; it was like entering a large estate of yore. The founder of the hospital, a Dr. Munson (namesake of Traverse City's large medical center next door), had declared that "Beauty is therapy," and one of his innovations was to turn the campus into an arboretum featuring just about any tree that can survive a Michigan winter. And Building 50 itself, which at one point had fallen into quite a state of disrepair, was now bright and shiny, surrounded by cars and directional signs enticing visitors inside.

As we entered the building, though, and proceeded to the Mercato, the collection of boutiques on the ground floor, the former life of the building seemed to hang heavy in the air. We passed glass showcases of hospital memorabilia, including some scary-looking electric devices from the turn of the previous century. A poster hanging above was a reproduction of an old tourist postcard from Traverse City, showing a spooning World War I era couple against a backdrop of the hospital grounds, with a legend, "No, I'm not looney -- just mooney." Most of the boutiques were still shuttered in iron bars for the morning. Down the hallway, a pensive young man sat slumped in a chair next to a locked art gallery.

We poked around a florist/gift shop for a few minutes. Fellow Traveler had become uncharacteristically quiet. Finally she said, "I think I want to leave. But we need to find a bathroom." The florist pointed us down the hall toward Trattoria Stella, the flagship restaurant in the development, at the end of a low, brick-arched hallway.

It was there in the nicely appointed bathroom, staring at the original hardware built into the walls and at a man's name incongruously scribbled in pencil onto a brick next to the sinks, that I started acknowledging a heaviness and depression all around me that I couldn't attribute to the architecture or lighting, that I'd been trying to fight off in the spirit of open-minded tourism.  But I couldn't. And I didn't feel it as much as FT, who emerged ashen-faced and said, "I really need to get out of here," with an urgency that bespoke real discomfort.

So we did. We wended our way down and around until we found an exit, and made it back to the Jeep. We drove down the street to Pleasanton Bakery, an artisan bakery we'd heard good things about; FT stayed in the vehicle while I ran in, but I didn't linger. We then visited The Underground Cheesecake Factory farther into the interior of the campus. We let Gertie run around a little near an old, unrenovated building across from the cheesecake bakery but we did not spend a lot of time there, nor did we venture into the Left Foot Charley winery next door. We finally just left -- past the former patient cottages turned into condominium units, past the church-turned-arts-center -- and kept going until we were in Suttons Bay.

As we left Traverse City FT sighed. "I can't explain what I felt back there," she confided, "but I didn't get over it until we got off the property. It was something...bad. I don't want to go back again."

When we returned home I started Googling information about the hospital, and found that we were not alone in our experience. Building 50 was apparently once home to the severely disturbed. And it seems that many visitors to the Commons, as well as employees of its businesses, have had close encounters with various manifestations of weird mojo. I don't know what to do with this sort of thing, because it's hard to fit into my spiritual paradigm...but if collective pain and confusion and fear and loneliness can somehow seep into the very masonry of a building and remain trapped there long after the sufferers have gone, then that's what we felt.

This makes me sad, because I really, really want this thing to be a success -- a redemption of positive from what had become a symbol of negativity, first in its original mission and then as an abandoned, vandalized wasteland in the middle of an otherwise "cool" city. I told FT that the developers would do well to have some sort of cleansing ritual or rituals done on site -- invite a priest or two, a shaman from the local Native American Tribe, anyone else with any spiritual chops, and let them do their thing in Building 50 and surrounds.

1 comment:

Gilly said...

I do believe that consistent pain and suffering, on a scale that would have occurred in that hospital, does leave an atmosphere. It somehow seeps into the ground. There would have been people in there whose very souls had been destroyed or traumatised.

I am sure this can happen in the same way that peace and holiness can also seep into the ground of churches, even the ruined monasteries of which we in England have so many.

Take FT to somewhere peaceful and let her soul recover!