Abandoned psychiatric hospital in Northville lures photographers with stories of haunted halls

By Jack Peltz

Photo by Jack Peltz

This colorful garage marked the only way into in the far southwest corner of the hospital complex. Graffiti lined the walls, guiding my way deeper into the depths of the building on April 10.

Isolated in a field, deep within the woods of the Detroit suburbs, lies a place seemingly untouched by time itself. It is the Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital, a sprawling complex of over 20 medical buildings which lay hidden from the outside world. Overtaken by nature, the place waits dormant like a hungry animal, forever waiting for its next meal to arrive. It is not a happy place. Not at all. The things that happened in these walls should only be in fiction. Rape, theft, neglect, and death hang in the air here like a curse, forever leaving a haunting legacy that this forsaken place may never live down. Yet, where did it all begin? This is the story of Michigan’s most infamous asylum.

The hospital, like most things, started off as an idea. All across the state mental hospitals were struggling with poor conditions and overcrowding. They needed a new facility to move patients to, one that could tolerate the needed space and, later, needed staff to restrain, operate on, and drug the neglected or abused patients.

Photo by Jack Peltz

On April 10, I watch as the dull white curtains flow through the air with each gust of wind. The window behind them seemed almost like a portal to another world, a glance into a place I was never meant to see.

Northville, a small city of around 6,000 people, was selected as the place where the new hospital would be built. Plans were made, and in 1952, the facility opened. With over four hundred acres of densely wooded land, twenty brand new, “state-of-the-art” facilities, and a top of the line psychiatric program, the Northville Psychiatric Hospital was one of the nicest psych wards in the country at the time. The lucky first wave of patients did not endure what later patients would. Those patients, the first patients of varying degrees of psychological wellness, were comfortably housed in each of the designated buildings, all of which surrounded the grand, 9-story tower on the north side of the complex. Patients were treated with many amenities unheard of at other psych-wards: a gymnasium, bowling alley, movie theater, and swimming pool. Patients were also able to participate in many labor and art opportunities. These included a music program where patients could learn to play a variety of musical instruments, a theater program where patients could put on plays, mechanic and home economics courses, and plenty of other activities around the complex. All in all, it was a great place to stay to get your psychiatric treatment.

Until it all changed.

Photo by Jack Peltz

Piles of old sheets of paper litter the floor of this office on April 10. Through years of exposure to the elements, many documents slowly faded away to nothing but a blank sheet

When the 70’s came about the state changed its mind about psychiatric facilities. Intense budget cuts were made for all the psychiatric hospitals in the state, forcing many to limit their treatment or close their doors completely. With nowhere left to go, many former patients of these affected hospitals were sent to Northville Regional for their treatment. Bustling with over 1000 patients, the 650 person hospital was beginning to be overrun. Overcrowding forced sick patients out of their rooms and into smaller, less sanitary spaces. Some patients were even forced to sleep in the gym or the hallways. At the same time, the invention of powerful new drug therapy combined with the mass budget cuts changed the way mental hospitals worked. Patients were left to wander the halls unaccompanied. Journalists who went into the hospital reported seeing dozens of patients laying out and watching television while on heavy doses of medication.

Yet, this was only the beginning of this nightmare.

Photo by Jack Peltz

Graffiti covered each doorway of this narrow hallway. As I walked down it, on April 10, I imagined the former patients walking with me, going about their daily routine at the hospital.

By the 1980’s, relentless staff and budget cuts had ravaged the hospital. The facility started to become dangerous. The once celebrated psychiatric treatment program, filled with compassion and care, vanished. Left in its place was a disorganized, careless mess. Over-medicated patients were given large doses of potent drugs without any true medical supervision. Rape and abuse became routine in the halls of the facility. Even the staff, most of whom were foreign, became unable to control the rowdy inmates. Fights between patients and staff were commonplace throughout the 1980’s. There were even many escapees who fled the treachery of the place. Most neighborhoods surrounding the hospital became used to the sight of crowds of escaped inmates running rampant in the streets or perusing through backyards. Police were often called to nearby shops or businesses after getting reports of escaped inmates hiding out. While there was discussion about the creation of a large perimeter fence, the idea never materialized.

Photo by Jack Peltz

As I walked down a long, ominous corridor, on April 10, I reached out into the void and opened a door. What I found on the other side was an endless forest stretching out to the horizon, filled to the brim with dense greenery.

By 1983 the yearly number of escapees rose exponentially to over 800 that year. On average there were more than two successful escape attempts a day. Besides rape, assault, abuse, and escape, the hospital also started to fill with mysteriously dead patients. While it started as a random, oddball occurrence, deaths soon became a staple at the facility. The conflict between inmates lead to homicides. Neglect and poor care lead to rampant suicides. There was even an incident in which a group of nurses at the hospital had a hand in the murder of a sick patient. And just like that, death and disease spread like a plague throughout the walls and halls of the place.

Photo by Jack Peltz

On April 10, I flew my drone over the C building of the abandoned Northville Psychiatric Hospital. Before the demolition of the main hospital tower, the C building was once connected directly to the tower.

By the mid 90’s, Northville Regional was one of the only remaining psychiatric facilities in the state. Wrecked by years of downsizing and budget cuts, the hospital now boasted a population of a mere 300 patients. As hospitals closed all throughout the state, it was clear that Northville was hanging on by the very last thread, and by 2002 it was announced that the site would close within a year.

Photo by Jack Peltz

Colorful graffiti lines the walls of the pool and the room surrounding it on April 10. This was once a place where kids and adults would come to relax and swim on a hot summer day.

The last days of the hospital were filled with dread and uncertainty. Many patients didn’t know where they would be moved, and neither did the staff. Finally, in May of 2003, the remaining 239 patients were transferred to other facilities across the state, and on May 16, the final patient walked out the doors of the hospital as a mere skeleton of a staff began to clean up and wind down operations.

Photo by Jack Peltz

Nearly, untouched by time, I watched as the dust settled on this old grand piano on April 10. I wondered what it would be like to hear the sound of a note playing from down the hall in the dead of night. Just the thought was enough to chill me.

Immediately after closing, Northville Regional was on the market to be sold. What was expected to be a short, month-long process of selling the site became a decade-long ordeal, which would test the patience of the government itself. At some point, a buyer purchased the land, only for them to back out of it after seeing the immense amount of dangerous chemicals spread out across the complex. After an expensive and vigorous cleanup of the site, including the demolition and removal of the power plant and nurses quarters due to contamination, the site was finally ready to be sold. Eventually in 2006, the property sold for 35 million, roughly half of the original selling price. Plans for a school, offices, restaurants, and neighborhoods were made; yet, they all fell flat. Then, in 2018, the demolition of the main 9-story tower was ordered, and by December of that year, the building was gone and the property fell into the city's hands once more. Eventually, the city gave up, and the land was left still and vacant. The once bustling hospital had fallen silent. The nightmare was over.

Photo by Jack Peltz

Graffiti and the basketball hoops hang down over the warped wooden floor of the former gym at the Northville Psychiatric Hospital. Oddly, the bleachers stayed sturdy enough for me to climb them so I could capture this aerial view on April 10.

Now as photographers, such as myself, begin to return to document its deleterious state, I am left to wonder what will become of this place with its crumbling walls and rotting roofs. It is a ghost, a mere shell of what once was. Buildings sit there endlessly, unaffected by the power of time. While it may seem to be just a lifeless, decrepit group of buildings surrounded by forest, it is much much more, filled with rich history and examples of what can happen when we take good intentions for human care-taking meet lack of funding. For this was not a happy place. Not at all. It was a place filled with death and disease, with fear and anger. While it began as a sanctuary for some, it ended as a restless, resting place for others. Now the place is known through decades worth of stories about the ghostly visions of patients wandering the halls of the hospital and the woods around it. So if you’re visiting the abandoned Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital, make sure not to venture too deep, as you never know what you may find on the other side.

Photo by Jack Peltz

Rusty old workout equipment lay broken and unused in this barren room on April 10. It appears that patients likely used this room to train and workout when the hospital was in use.

There’s something so intriguing about a place like the Northville Hospital that seems to bring me back shortly after I leave. Whether it’s the abandoned old buildings or the incredibly rich history, I am always trying to come up with a reason to return. I’m not sure what it is about the place. I’ve been to dozens of abandoned structures yet none seem to hit me as hard as the hospital. Something is just so off about it. Maybe it's all the stories I’ve heard about ghosts and demons haunting the place. Maybe it's the backstory of the place and the trauma and torture that occurred. Or maybe it's the abandonment, the buildings which are lost in time, forever stuck how they were the moment they were left. I’m not sure I’ll ever know the true reason I keep going back. Maybe it’s something deeper, something more sinister. It could be that after all the stories and legends, everything is true. This is an evil place, but it’s also a place of awe and wonder. I think that we can learn from the history of the hospital, and discover something about the tragedies of human error. If we are to continue to explore the grounds of Northville Regional, we mustn’t forget the nightmare that occurred here, as it may be the key to a better future.

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