By the 1940’s, Michigan’s network of mental hospitals was overcrowded, aging, and inadequate. A new, modern facility was needed in southeast Michigan, and Northville – already the site of a hospital for “feeble children” – was chosen. Construction on Northville State Hospital, or NSH, started in the mid 1940’s, and opened in 1952.
Consisting of 20 buildings spread out over 453 of wooded, sometimes swampy land, NSH was lauded as one of the best psychiatric facilities in the country when it opened. Patients suffering from varying degrees of psychological problems were treated in different wards and buildings around the campus, arranged around a gleaming eight-story tower on the north side. The hospital was almost completely self-sufficient with its own laundry, kitchen, gymnasium, movie theater, swimming pool, and bowling alley, powered by a steam plant which supplied electricity and heat through a network of underground tunnels.
In its early days, Northville was a pioneer in the use of art and music as part of treatment. Patients could learn to play musical instruments, put on plays, could study mechanics or home economics, worked in hospital facilities, and tended the grounds. In the 1970’s, though, the state began to trim the mental health budget, closing some hospitals and reducing programs offered as doctors began relying on medicine and drugs to treat symptoms. Crowding became an issue at Northville, as the facility was regularly treating over 1,000 patients, but had only been designed for 650. Some patients had to sleep in the gymnasium until more rooms could be arranged.
Budget and staffing cuts began to take their toll on the hospital in the 1980’s. A series of investigative reports by the Detroit News in 1983 found conditions at the hospital were “appalling.” Reporters found patients sleeping in the hallways of wards, chain-smoking cigarettes, or watching television. They were receiving little in the way of therapeutic treatment, with doctors instead relying on large doses of psychiatric drugs. Assault, theft, racism, neglect, and rape were common; patients sometimes died during struggles with the hospital staff, or at the hands of fellow patients. Compounding problems was that many of the doctors were foreign-born, resulting in a cultural gap, which made it difficult for them to communicate with patients and vice-versa. One staff member wrote “After seven weeks on Ward A1-1 during spring 1984 as part of my training as a student nurse at a Detroit-area community college, I concluded it was a kindness to call Northville a psychiatric hospital. People are not treated at Northville; they are warehoused.”
Despite security measures, there were frequent escapes. People living in neighborhoods got used to the sight of escapees walking down the streets or hiding in their back yards; oftentimes, Police would find them at local restaurants or at the mall.
The 1990’s continued the trend of hospital downsizing and closing, as the state sought to move patients from expensive hospitals into community-based support systems and halfway houses. The hospital changed its name in 1995 to Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital, reflecting its increased role as nearby hospitals were shuttered. By the late 90’s, Northville was one of the last remaining state mental hospitals in Michigan. Once called the “Palace of Glass” for its modern construction, the campus was run-down and deteriorating.
In 2002 the state announced that it was going to close Northville within a year. The hospital was simply too expensive to keep running for the few hundred patients still living there, needed major repairs, and most importantly – was sitting on a very valuable, undeveloped piece of land as the property market was skyrocketing. The last days at Northville were marked by uncertainty: many patients didn’t know where they would be going until a few weeks or days before the closing. Most were either transferred to nearby facilities, while some were shipped across the state. The last patient left on May 16th, 2003, after which a skeleton staff began winding down operations.
Immediately after the closure, the state moved to sell the property, which it valued at over $70 million dollars, to plug an expected shortfall in that year’s budget. Initially expected to take only a few months, the sale of the Northville property would drag on for nearly 10 years, as developers fought each other and the township in court over the actual value of the land and what to do with it. One buyer after another bought the land and then backed out, discovering that the hospital site was heavily polluted with medical waste, oil, arsenic, barium, lead and other chemicals. Large amounts of asbestos would have to be removed from all 20 buildings before they could be demolished, as well as the underground tunnel system, adding to the overall cost of cleanup. The sale was finally completed in 2006 for less than half the original price - $31 million dollars.
In July of that year, REIS – the new owner – announced an $800 million dollar housing and retail development for the site called “Highwood,” which included 1,000 houses, restaurants, office buildings, senior houses, condos, parks, and a school. Construction was to start in 2008, but almost immediately ran into trouble as the township balked at the size and scope of the project. They rejected the plan in 2007 on the grounds that it was too large, sparking another court battle that took an unusual turn that fall.
In October of 2007, REIS applied for and received permits for four temporary or mobile homes on the hospital grounds, ostensibly for housing site security. A few weeks later though, the township was surprised to find out that the developer was renting the houses out to families for $650 a month, who soon after moving in, filled a petition to annex the entire property from the township of Northville to the neighboring city of Livonia. The company was taking advantage of a law whereby residents could, by a majority vote, allow another city to annex their property. In this case there were just seven residents on the property, effectively giving them – and the developer - the power to let Livonia take the entire property through a ballot issue, where presumably the developer would be more favorably received and be allowed to carry out its plans without hindrance. Amidst a flurry of lawsuits, the proposal for annexation was rejected by the residents of Livonia in 2008, killing the plan.
While the court battles continued to play out, REIS began logging operations on the eastern side of the hospital property, much of which was heavily forested with trees as old as 200 years. The ensuing outcry, coupled with the collapse of the housing market finally brought both sides together to broker a deal: the township would buy 3/4ths of the property from REIS for $21M and turn it into a park, while REIS was free to do whatever they wanted with the remaining 80 or so acres. And that is pretty much where it stands today.
2012 was a year of big announcements. In January, Northville Township announced an $82 million dollar plan that would convert 349 acres into a large nature preserve and activity park. The forest and wetlands would be improved with hiking and biking trails, while the hospital buildings would be demolished and with by “a community center/pool house, mountain biking trails, a snow hill (made out of recycled hospital material), a pond that could double as an ice rink, a skate park, a Great Lawn with a band shell and even an Energy Park with demonstrations of wind turbines.” Abatement and limited demolition work has begun at two of the most contaminated parts of the hospital, the steam plant and maintenance buildings, with the help of grants from the EPA and other government agencies. Progress won’t likely be seen for several years, as the needed funds have to be raised.
In the meantime, the University of Michigan has announced they are building a 100,000 square foot ambulatory care facility on the retail parcel owned by REIS. More announcements on other tenants are expected in the coming years.
The hospital has been vacant for almost 10 years now. Broken windows and leaking roofs have opened the hospital buildings to the elements and wildlife. Also attracted to the buildings are explorers, and on the Internet, a growing following. The township has taken a rather dim view to trespassers, as the buildings are in band shape, and has gone so far as to demolish and backfill parts of the steam tunnels that run under the plant to deter the curious.