Construction, Real Estate, and Sustainability

GR construction firm brings Traverse City's asylum back to life

Turning former mental hospital into apartments was 'interesting' for Wolverine Building Group, to say the least.

October 31, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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GR construction firm brings Traverse City's Cottage 36 to life again
The Cottage 36 project used Michigan State Historic Tax Credits and MSHDA Low Income Housing Tax Credits and will be submitted for LEED certification. Photo by Alexis Macaluso

Cottage 36 at the former Traverse City state mental hospital is occupied again — this time, hopefully, with happy, well-adjusted people — thanks to the efforts of Wolverine Building Group in Grand Rapids.

The former hospital’s comforting use of the word “cottage” is somewhat misleading, however. It actually is a four-story brick building of 32,000 square feet, according to Alexis Macaluso of Wolverine.

According to www.rootsweb.ancestry.com, Cottage 36 was built in 1906 to house male psychiatric patients.

On Friday, the new owners, Mike and Bob Jacobson, will be hosting a grand opening of the 29-unit apartment building, still called Cottage 36, at the Grand Traverse Commons. The apartments feature modern, energy-efficient amenities with exposed brick walls, custom wood trim and doors, and refinished plaster.

According to Marcus Ringnalda, one of Wolverine’s two project managers at the site, one of “the coolest aspects” of the project was building apartments in the attic, which had never before been occupied.

“We built loft-style units in there, many of which have a spiral staircase going to the loft level,” said Ringnalda.

Anyone who has ever visited the grounds of Northern Michigan’s most famous mental hospital is struck by the beautiful grounds and somber appearance of the buildings, some of which are yet to be renovated and still boarded up.

One of the surprises on the project was the discovery by Wolverine workers of underground tunnels that connected the basements of the different buildings. The ones to Cottage 36 appeared to be for utilities, and were collapsed by the workers and sealed off, according to Ringnalda. Other underground tunnels on the grounds were apparently designed for use by hospital staff.

The workers found within the walls and utility trenches an old wine bottle from a Paw Paw winery and a 1922 copy of The American Boy, a newspaper-style publication offering guidance to boys.

Were any of the workers spooked by the eerie old building?

“There certainly were,” said Ringnalda. One was a Wolverine employee who had to visit the job site on nights when only a few workers were still there.

The building had last been used by a community organization in Traverse City that had created a “haunted house” set for kids, on one entire floor, complete with props.

“The first thing we had to do when we got in there was clean out the scarecrows and straw, and fake jack-o-lanterns,” said Ringnalda.

One of the biggest challenges in the construction was while lowering the basement floor, to increase head room in those apartments. The process revealed stacked stone foundations, which had to be shored up by the Wolverine crew.

Old, stacked stone foundations, “from a structural engineer’s standpoint, you could say are very scary,” quipped Ringnalda.

Ringnalda’s fellow project manager at Cottage 36 was Aaron Jonker, and another Grand Rapids firm, Catalyst Partners, was the sustainability consultant. The architect was Concept Design Studio.

The project used Michigan State Historic Tax Credits and MSHDA Low Income Housing Tax Credits, and will be submitted for LEED certification.

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