Northville State Hospital
Located in Northville, MI
Photo © 2010 Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
Northville State Hospital History
The story of Northville State Hospital begins in the 1940s, when many of the psychiatric hospitals in the U.S. were teeming far beyond their capacities. The facilities near the burgeoning city of Detroit were completely full; the massive Eloise Hospital was reaching 10,000 residents by the Great Depression, Pontiac's aging campus was nearing the 3,000 mark, and even the relatively new 1930 Ypsilanti State Hospital reached its limit of 4,000 patients at this time. The state of Michigan purchased 453 acres of woodlands about 2 miles from the Wayne County Training School in Northville in the mid-1940s to construct a brand new hospital for psychiatric services; opened in 1952, it was considered the most cutting-edge facility in the country. The twenty building campus consisted of a steam power plant, laundry building, kitchen and bakery, indoor swimming pool, gymnasium, movie theater, bowling alley, employee quarters, and several cottage-style patient dormitories, surrounded by a massive nine story tower complex.
Despite the grandiosity of Northville State Hospital, it was no stranger to overcrowding. The 650-bed facility was regularly treating over 1,000 patients during the early years; some even had to sleep in the gymnasium until rooms could be found. The overcrowding subsided as patient population began to decline during the 1970s, although this had led to new problems - budget cuts and the advent of drug therapy had begun to change life in the wards. An investigative report by the Detroit News in 1983 found disturbing evidence of custodial care, or "warehousing," as patients were left to idle or watch television on heavy doses of medication. The report also found the hospital to be rife with assault, neglect, rape, and racism; escapes were also commonplace.
By the 1990s, psychiatric hospitals across the country were downsizing or closing all together; Northville, being only forty years old, would be one of few state hospitals in operation in Michigan. In 1995 it was re-named the Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital to reflect the broader extent of the hospital's reach, and the population slowly dwindled until it wasn't cost-effective to remain open. The last patient left in May of 2003, and the hospital was shuttered.
The state fought to sell the property as quickly as possible, but the cleanup costs were extraordinary; asbestos abatement, underground tunnels, and a contaminated power plant were all big ticket items. In 2006, the property was sold to a developer called REIS for $31 million dollars; roughly half of what the state claimed it was worth. The proposed development of the land was massive; 1,000 homes, restaurants, an office park and even a school were all planned. The city strongly resisted, and court battles ensued.
In 2007, four mobile homes were moved on the property under the guise of site security, but it turns out REIS was charging rent to families who, after moving in, filed a petition to annex the property into the nearby town of Livonia. This strange legal loophole was possible and would presumably give Livonia the right to allow REIS to develop the property under looser restrictions. After many lawsuits, the residents of Livonia eventually rejected the annexation proposal in 2008.
REIS continued to stir the pot when they deforested the woodlands on the eastern side of the property, killing some trees that were over 200 years old. Eventually, the township agreed to purchase three-quarters of the property from REIS for $21 million, and left the developer to do what they want with the rest. Northville is currently planning an $82 million dollar project to convert their share of the land into a nature preserve and park, which includes hiking trails and even a sledding hill made from "recycled hospital material." Some contaminated buildings have been razed, such as the power plant and a nurse's dormitory, but the majority of the campus remains vacant until the project is funded.