TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — In a resort community known primarily for dazzling Lake Michigan vistas and cherry orchards spread across green hillsides, a new attraction is taking shape in an unlikely setting.
A state mental hospital operated for more than a century a half-mile from downtown Traverse City and its popular waterfront. It closed in 1989, and the stately but dilapidated buildings appeared destined for the wrecking ball.
Raymond Minervini and his fledgling development company rode to the rescue, hoping to transform the fading landmark into a modern, mixed-used urban neighborhood while retaining its historic character. The gamble is paying off.
The 480-acre campus is now The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. It features shops, restaurants, offices and housing amid spacious lawns and a natural area with hiking and biking trails. For anyone needing a break from the beach scene and downtown traffic without fleeing to the countryside, it's the perfect getaway.
Raymond Minervini II, the founder's son and business partner, noted that the mental hospital was built at a time when experts believed attractive surroundings and fresh air were the best treatment. In a sense, he said, the mission hasn't entirely changed.
"The word 'asylum' is perceived very negatively these days," he said. "We'd like to take it back. It actually meant 'sanctuary,' a beautiful and noble intent to take care of our fellow human beings."
To fully appreciate the experience, consider the two-hour guided tour. It's a bit pricey at $25 per person and not available to kids under age 12, but you'll get fascinating historical insights and even wander through spooky underground steam tunnels.
Otherwise, explore on your own.
The Village's centerpiece is the former hospital residential and administration building, still known simply as Building 50. Its inelegant moniker may be the only unspectacular thing about this five-story structure. Constructed with more than 8 million white bricks and a quarter-mile long, its architecture is Victorian-Italianate, with high ceilings, large windows and red rooftop spires.
The basement level, an afterthought during the hospital era, is now the commercial hub. Labeled the "Mercato" (Italian for "marketplace,") its twisting hallways and interconnected boutiques are meant to resemble an old-world street scene. Locally owned shops offer artwork, books, clothing, antique furniture and more.
If you weren't hungry when you arrived, be sure to work up an appetite while browsing. Trattoria Stella and PepeNero are high-quality Italian restaurants serving lunch and dinner. Less expensive options include Spanglish, which features Mexican fare, and Cuppa Joe, a coffeehouse and cafe. For dessert, head down the hall to Underground Cheesecake Company, where flavors range from white chocolate marble to blueberry ripple.
Then it's time to go outdoors. The Minervinis take some obvious liberties by referring to the Village's grounds as "Traverse City's Central Park," but the comparison somehow seems apt.
Amble along the tree-lined front lawn, a choice location for festivals, weddings or just tossing a football. For the more adventurous, entrances to the 140-acre trail network are behind Building 50. You'll quickly feel a long way from town while walking, biking, jogging or skiing through woods and meadows. Also worth checking out is a botanic garden under development in a section of the campus where hospital residents once grew vegetables and milked cows.
Wind up your visit by relaxing in the "backyard," a miniature village square near the trailheads where some of the hospital's former auxiliary buildings are being refurbished. Test your skills on the bocce courts or savor a cup of organic coffee at Higher Grounds Trading Company. Prefer something stronger? Step next door to Left Foot Charley for a glass of wine or cider, produced on site. Another area winery, Black Star Farms, has a tasting room in the Mercato.
On your way out, pick up a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread from Pleasanton Brick Oven Bakery. Now you won't have to worry about breakfast tomorrow morning.
If You Go...
THE VILLAGE AT GRAND TRAVERSE COMMONS: Located in Traverse City, Michigan, on Lake Michigan, by car about five hours from Chicago and four hours from Detroit; http://www.thevillagetc.com/ .