By the 1940s, Michigan’s network of mental hospitals was overcrowded, aging, and inadequate. A new, modern facility was needed in southeast Michigan, and Northville was chosen. Construction on Northville State Hospital, or NSH, started in the mid-1940s, and opened in 1952, housing spill-over mental patients from Pontiac State Hospital, Newberry State Hospital, Kalamazoo State Hospital, Eloise Asylum, Ypsilanti State Hospital, and Traverse City State Hospital. Northville State Hospital’s name was later changed to Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital in 1972.
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. The first patients moved into the main building on January 1, 1952. and Dr. Philip Brown was selected as the first superintendent. The site is located at 41001 W Seven Mile Road in Northville. It’s surrounded by a dense forest that has been dubbed the “Evil Woods” by locals.
25 patients were the first to move in when the facility opened in 1952. The patient population grew to over 2,000 by 1957. The population stayed at that level until 1968 when Dr. Brown’s vision of rapid recovery and shorter stays began to be realized. 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 and worked in hospital facilities, and tended the grounds.
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 that supplied electricity and heat through a network of underground tunnels.
In the 1970s, 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 1980s. 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 of 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.
This map was drawn up by the engineering firm in the 1980s for the purpose of planning and showing fire protection system improvements done at that time. It also had a handy table in the fine print at the bottom that listed each building by letter, the year it was built, its square footage, and what function it served at the time.
- A: Administration and medical (built 1950-51)
- B: Admissions offices (built 1951)
- C: Patient wards (built 1951)
- D: Patient wards (built 1979)
- E: Patient wards (built 1979)
- F: Patient wards (built 1979)
- G: Patient wards (built 1979)
- H: EPIC Center patients (built 1954)
- J: Patient wards (built 1955)
- K: Patient wards (built 1955)
- L: Harrald Carter School (built 1979)
- M: Young adult patients (built 1954, expanded 1979)
- N: Young adult patients (built 1954, expanded 1979)
- O: Young adult patients (built 1954)
- AA Bldg: Therapy (built 1957)
- Power Plant: (built 1948)
- Laundry Bldg: (built 1952)
- Maintenance Bldg: (built 1952)
- Service Bldg: (built 1954)
- Bldg 71: Staff house (built 1951)
- Bldg 72: EPIC Center patients (built 1951)
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 reports of escapes started to become markedly prevalent in 1980, and the intensity of the escapes and crimes at the hospital climbed steadily through the 1980s.
By the October 21st, 1981 issue of the Northville Record, discussion of erecting some sort of a fence around the hospital was front-page news, and it remained a hot topic of editorial opinions and public discourse for two years. Some opposed the security fence idea because of questions about its practicality, its appearance, whether it was humane, or whether it would even be an effective deterrent. In 1982 the idea of a “living fence” was debated, which was basically an idea to plant a hedge of thorny growth in the woods surrounding the hospital to deter or at least slowdown escapees. December 19, 1983, Northville Record reported that escapes from NRPH had topped 800 for the year (an average of more than two per day). By the following spring, there was talk of building another fence—a real one—which again became a hot-button topic for the rest of the year.
Under Gov. John Engler in the 1990s, the State moved more to private care for the mentally ill because it was less expensive than state hospitals. The 1990s 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.
As the state moved toward community-based care, the patient population steadily declined. In 1995 Traverse City’s mental facility also closed. By the late 1990s, Northville was one of the last remaining state mental hospitals in Michigan with the patient population down to 360 in 1998.
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. In May 2003, the remaining 239 patients were transferred to other state facilities. 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.
The developer REIS soon announced an $800 million dollar project that included lots of condos, businesses, public parkland, and even a school. Northville officials objected to the size of the development, saying it was too big and didn’t fit into their picture of how the township ought to be. 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 bandshell and even an Energy Park with demonstrations of wind turbines”.
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’s main structure was demolished in 2018 at a cost of approximately $9 million.
The demolition of the eight-story carcass of the main hospital was initially set to cost $5.8 million, however, the discovery — and the delicate removal process — of asbestos in the building escalated the price tag of the destruction. Along with the uplifting development of the trails comes the downcast remains of 11 of the 22 buildings — most contaminated with health-endangering asbestos — that housed patients at the hospital complex, which was closed in 2003. With no funding source on the horizon to clear the grounds of the remaining structures, the complete renovation of the area seems several years away from fruition.