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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Changing a Name Does Not Change a Purpose

I am not sure why architecture speaks to me as much as it does. Since I was a child I marvel at what man can do with the materials at hand. And the dedication to crafting something beautiful, detailed and in a scale to rival mountains... it staggers the mind. The most amazing thing about the skill of the architects craft is the amount of collaboration between masons and builders, artisans and craftsman... the armies that it must have taken to build that which an architect envisions. Take Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. 126 years after it began it is still under construction. And it is a wonder.

And architecture has always made me wonder. How do you get nature's hardest materials to cooperate with the file and chisel? How do you make a stained glass window vibrant even when the sun does not shine? And how to you accomplish this several stories above ground? And how did they do this hundreds of years ago without the aid of modern machinery? Moreover, with the mechanical means at our disposal... why do we not do it more now?

Modern art, minimalism and the de Stijl movement has stripped architecture of its character and variety. Yes. It is less expensive to build. But it is also less interesting to preserve. As my home town slowly picks up its pace and joins the world's progress closer to real time than when I was a child, we lose more and more of the things that set us apart from other places. We are gaining a homogeny that erases our past. Our schools look like prisons and the hospitals and clinic look like banks. Banks look like box stores and box stores look like borg cubes without the intricate steampunk facades.

Yet, in the rolling hills that used to be the countryside of Traverse City's early days, there is a movement to save shades of the past through repurposing the Northern Michigan Asylum. The Asylum was renamed the Traverse City State Hospital sometime in its past to reflect the redistricting of territories served by the state health administration. Today it is called the Commons. As it was then, Building 50 is the jewel in this Victorian era crown.

See what I mean about the homogeneous present of our history? To call it the Commons is to make it seem as if it is no different than any other place. It is not. But if you would like to gloss over the history of the illness, pain, suffering and death then by all means. Call it the Commons so that it is no more lively with history than the modern McMansions. Take the spiritual history out of the place so that people will live, work and shop here without any thought to the paranormal.

More than one person has told me that the various ghost hunters who are drawn to the hospital have been rebuffed because the developers don't want to associate the place with ghosts. It's a novelty that would drawn attention. But it is also a novelty that can draw negative investment income if the ghostly aspect is too prominent. Funny... adults have forever said there are no such things as ghosts and they mock the new agers for the belief by calling us infantile and simple minded superstitious fools. And yet...  they are afraid of ghosts impacting the fiscal picture.

So are ghosts real or not? We must all believe in them to some degree. The idea of there being ghosts can not be an issue. There are a good many people for whom there is no whimsy and as such there are no ghosts. They go on counting their coins, inventing new businesses and living the capitalist life. There can not be such a danger from belief that whitewashing the place in renovations and media outlets would be necessary.

I would like to think that this about the architecture.

And why not? The grounds sit on rolling hills, some of which are wooded, with a stream and small rapids running through it. The Asylum was completely self sustaining for a good portion of its functioning life. It had its own railroad station, barns and farmland, processing plant, bakery, butcher shop, mechanical shop, woodshop, fire station and church. Then an infirmary was added that has become the monster hospital it is now. The main building and its subordinate cottages were decked in Victorian grandeur. The only other place in town in which that historic aesthetic is as well preserved it the Old Towne neighborhood with Reynolds Jonkoff funeral home as its crowning jewel. The original Asylum was a castle. Comparatively, today it is still a castle. But it has suffered through its updates.

I learned a lot about the hospital in our local history section of our native bookstore. From the many books there, I have concluded that Building 50 is permanently scarred by the blighting remodel done in the 50s and 60s. The true character of the entire site will never reach its initial grandeur. There really is only so much that can be done cosmetically when the needs of functionality command the lions share of the budget. To make the buildings habitable again there must be sacrifices. And in an age where we content ourselves with photos and blog posts to preserve the past, to keep our memories for us, we will sacrifice experiencing the visual and tactile qualities that are lost to us. To us... those living in the here and now, such frills and furbelows are not necessary. They are not our anchors of spirit to place.

Today we anchor ourselves to place with the people we share a bottle of wine, a cup of excellent coffee, a dinner we could never prepare at home, art we may never be able to afford but can appreciate nonetheless, the market fairs and outdoor festivals which celebrate our modern sensibilities. However, the denizens who remain there decades after passing are anchored by the aesthetic as well as the experiences that could once be had. We can not experience the farms, the gardens, the walks to invigorate (and perhaps reignite) the depressed spirit. Those things are all gone. But if the gingerbread, mouldings and stained glass could return along with the cupolas, corbels and dentils then it would be so much closer to the original that spirit and flesh could both touch the facades and find a distinguished anchor. Perhaps, in having a common connection with the those past, the creep factor might be reduced.

Trust me. It is creepy. Certain times of the year more than others, and in certain locations more than others, there are restless entities and disharmonious energies that are not any fun to bump into, day or night. None of it is truly dangerous. One of the superintendents remains to keep things from getting out of hand. I met him once when I was a kid. I thought he was real. And my mom got freaked out because she saw me having a conversation with thin air. I didn't know he wasn't real until I saw him in the pages of an asylum history book. And he still isn't scary. There is an old man, stereotypically yelling at kids who are there later than he thinks appropriate. Most of which can not hear him. His frustration is palpable and understood. Otherwise there are people wandering around with no more clue to their existence now than when they lived. And at least one who is still angry that she was ever there in the first place. And perhaps rightly so if she were more lively of spirit than her Victorian counterparts. Never let it be said that challenging the status quo is without its hazards. There are those who wanted to be there to be left alone, free of the torment of their life. And they would like to continue to have the freedom from life.

I wandered into a pity party on my last foray and suffered the consequence. Nothing deadly. Nothing
malevolent. I wandered into a public wood assuming that there was no need to seek permission. But there is a round little hill that looks like the top of a monk's bald pate. It is nearly perfectly skull shape with a ring of vegetation that could pass for middle ages tonsorial chic. And the perfect place to sit and weep, head in hand and away from judging eyes. It is also a great place to read, to feel, to exist without pressures. It's the kind of place an introvert could really feel at home in nature. So, I hopped a few steps hoping for the seldom shot picturesque backside of this grand victorian castle and experience a few minutes of the solitude I've been craving. I did not get far as I was promptly smacked between the eyes. Oddly enough, there were not any tree branches low enough to have done the job. Not so oddly though, it was my third eye that got smacked. A very clear signal that I tread without permission. Lesson learned. Photo shoot over.

Thrill seekers and fans of the paranormal have flocked here since its closing. Hikers and naturalists seek the property because of its grand arboreal history, challenging slopes and well... because it is where the school kids have always run cross country training exercises. And those who need to get away and do not want to run into anyone else have sought the large expanse of yard and park to be able to "get lost". And yes, those who love architecture seek the property as well.

None of those make money. So the homes and businesses that are slowly taking over the defunct buildings are necessary to preserve the property, keeping it available to all the present and future citizens of Traverse City. It is a shame though that availability to the citizens of the past is so curtailed. They do us no more harm in spirit than they were wont to do in the past.

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