Title

Rockhaven: L.A.'s First Feminist Sanitarium

RH_012.jpg

In one of the many idyllic brick patios of Rockhaven Sanitarium stands a faded white statue of a young woman. The woman sits leaning back on both hands, her face relaxed and tilted up towards the warm California sun, soaking it in. It is as if this woman knows, just as Rockhaven's founder Agnes Richards once did when she established the progressive, women-only mental health facility in 1923, that the sun will help heal her and the hundreds of female patients who for over 80 years sought relief behind Rockhaven's ivy-covered walls.

Agnes Richards made it her personal and professional mission to treat female patients with dignity.
Agnes Richards made it her personal and professional mission to treat female patients with dignity.

Rockhaven is unique among other mental institutions of its time, largely because of Richards' feminist mission. At Rockhaven, female patients would be treated with respect and dignity, and have an active lifestyle instead of the abuse and isolation that was the norm in most other sanitariums at the time. The facility quickly became so popular for its pioneering approach and beautiful grounds that many of Hollywood's elite, including actress Billie Burke from The Wizard of Oz (Glinda the Good Witch), Broadway star Peggy Fears, and Marilyn Monroe's mother Gladys Baker Eley, were soon among Richards's clientele.

After putting herself through nursing school in Chicago and serving with the Red Cross during World War I Agnes Richards moved to California for a job at Patton State Hospital in San Bernadino. She later secured a position as superintendent at L.A. County Hospital, where she grew so repulsed by the treatment of mental illness in women that she determined to open a more humane facility of her own.

And despite Rockhaven's former popularity and prominence as an innovative institution for women, today the "Lady of Rockhaven," like the rest of the historic 3.5 acre property in Montrose, sits in a state of disrepair. The mid-century floral wallpaper is torn and peeling back from the edges. A chandelier hangs precariously from a water-damaged ceiling, threatening to fall. Nothing blooms anymore at Rockhaven, where the 15 historic Craftsman and Spanish Colonial Revival style buildings that formerly housed women seeking treatment for mental illness, addiction, and dementia have sat vacant since the Ararat Home of Los Angeles closed the facility in 2006.

The property has since remained empty, with much of what was left behind by Rockhaven's former residents (a piano, vintage furniture, wheelchairs, hospital beds, black and white photographs, an old lady's mink coat) still locked up inside.

 

Rockhaven is nestled in La Crescenta, which was once home to as many as twenty-five specialized facilities. Photo by Adriana Widdoes
Rockhaven is nestled in La Crescenta, which was once home to as many as twenty-five specialized facilities. Photo by Adriana Widdoes
The belongings of some patients remain as a reminder of the hundreds of women that sought health and healing at Rockhaven. Photo by Adriana Widdoes.
The belongings of some patients remain as a reminder of the hundreds of women that sought health and healing at Rockhaven. Photo by Adriana Widdoes.
Though Rockhaven patients were required to be ambulatory, Richards often kept patients when their condition deteriorated. Photo by Adriana Widdoes.
Though Rockhaven patients were required to be ambulatory, Richards often kept patients when their condition deteriorated. Photo by Adriana Widdoes.


In the Sunny Suburbs
There are, of course, theories that Rockhaven might not be completely empty. Mike Lawler, a member of the Friends of Rockhaven nonprofit group that has been allowed by the city to maintain Rockhaven's interiors as volunteers, has had some strange experiences of his own. One day, while cleaning out a bathroom in Rockhaven's "Little Hospital," Mike discovered a pile of crumbling pills hidden high on a shelf. "Right when I swept [the pills] out, I felt this incredible anger come up behind me," Mike said. "But of course, when I turned around there was nobody there, and the anger just faded away... It was as though I caught somebody."

Mike believes the hidden pills might have belonged to a former patient who possibly died while residing at Rockhaven. Although patients had to be ambulatory in order to be admitted, as the women aged Richards often did not have the heart to send them to other facilities in the area with higher levels of care. Eventually, a hospital was built on the property so that patients could receive bedside care once they lost their ability to walk. Regardless, Richards maintained high expectations for these women, who were still required to dress and take meals in the dining room, even as their physical conditions deteriorated. Richards believed this would lead to heightened self-esteem among the women, which in turn would maximize their overall quality of life.

Contrary to standard treatment at most sanitariums at the time, Richards made sure that her patients lived in a comfortable environment. Photo courtesy of Friends of Rockhaven.
Contrary to standard treatment at most sanitariums at the time, Richards made sure that her patients lived in a comfortable environment. Photo courtesy of Friends of Rockhaven.
Photo courtesy of Friends of Rockhaven
Photo courtesy of Friends of Rockhaven

These stories not only illuminate Rockhaven's feminist roots, but remind us of the distinct role that Crescenta Valley has played in the history of public health. Soon after Dr. Benjamin Briggs founded La Crescenta in 1881, Crescenta Valley became widely known for its warm climate and clean, dry air, prompting a prosperous sanitarium industry that emerged throughout the early 1900s. By the 1920s, Crescenta Valley was home to at least 25 specialized facilities that treated chronic disorders such as tuberculosis, asthma, alcoholism, mental illness, and dementia. With the sole exception of Rockhaven, none of these sanitariums has survived intact.

As Crescenta Valley gradually shifted from rural to suburban, homeowners who feared the stigma of living near a hospital or mental asylum began resisting further development of sanitariums in the area. Rockhaven became the focus of an intense legal battle when, in 1928, Agnes Richards applied to expand her facility. Locals objected with wild accusations that Richards was a drunk whose "insane patients... ran screaming down the streets of the suburbs at unenjoyable hours of the night" (Source: La Crescenta Record-Ledger). But what her accusers failed to realize was that if Richards had been bold enough to create one of California's first private mental institutions at a time when female-owned businesses were exceedingly rare, she was certainly bold enough to fight back and defend her creation. In response, Richards filed a $100,000 slander suit, which she won just a few months later.

Story continues below

Dubious Future
Despite its significance in women's history, it seems more and more unlikely that Rockhaven will survive the city of Glendale well enough for its feminist legacy to be acknowledged and remembered.

For $8.25 million the city of Glendale purchased Rockhaven from Ararat Home of Los Angeles, which operated a nursing home on the property for 5 years beginning in 2001. At the time of its purchase in 2008, the city said it hoped to preserve Rockhaven and floated vague ideas for a historic park including a community center or library, but the recession and major political scandal put the city's plans for Rockhaven permanently on hold.

Though city officials have remained largely tight-lipped about the status of Rockhaven's development, a recent meeting has re-opened the conversation about its future. On October 6 Glendale City Council held a closed session in which potential plans for Rockhaven were discussed. Real estate developers Brooks Street and Lab Holdings, LLC, as well as a group of psychiatric professionals from Venice and San Marino, were listed on the agenda as part of the conversation among city officials and staff though the aforementioned parties were not present at the session. The meeting was held to discuss the "price and terms for the acquisition of [Rockhaven]." Negotiations for Mountain Oaks, a 40-acre plot of undeveloped land next to Crescenta Valley Park, were also discussed at the meeting, suggesting that the two properties are being considered as a potential swap.

Patients were required to dress and attend dinner daily as a way to support self-esteem. Photo by Adriana Widdoes.
Patients were required to dress and attend dinner daily as a way to support self-esteem. Photo by Adriana Widdoes.
Despite advocates' proposals to turn the facility into a historical landmark, the City of Glendale may instead choose to sell it to developers for commercial purposes. Photo by Adriana Widdoes.
Despite advocates' proposals to turn the facility into a historical landmark, the City of Glendale may instead choose to sell it to developers for commercial purposes. Photo by Adriana Widdoes.

Some of Brooks Street's projects include the proposed Newport Banning Ranch and other residential properties throughout California. Brooks Street has said that their plan for Rockhaven would be similar; the developers would bring in independent retailers in addition to building no more than 80 new housing units in the style of Rockhaven's historic bungalow courts. They have also claimed that Rockhaven's many historic oak trees (some over 100 years old) can be safely moved to other locations on the property if and when their plan is approved.

By contrast, Lab Holdings is the developer responsible for Orange County's "Anti-Mall," which the New York Times once aptly described as "a strip mall scented with attitude, decay, and patchouli." Built into a former night vision goggle factory, the Anti-Mall was conceived in the early 1990s as way to import fashionable urban grit for hipsters living in sprawling suburbs. Today, the Anti-Mall houses boutique retailers and restaurants, art spaces, and other larger chain stores like Urban Outfitters and Buffalo Exchange.

While officials decide on the future of Rockhaven, it is unclear whether they are taking into consideration community members advocating for its preservation. The importance that Rockhaven holds for women, particularly when US politicians are still actively denying women's rights to safe and compassionate healthcare, is singular and immeasurable. Furthermore, despite Rockhaven's innovative roots, it is unknown whether Glendale politicians will consider options of higher historic and cultural value than yet another shopping mall. Perhaps by evoking the innovative vision of Agnes Richards a more creative solution can be found.

Update: This article has been corrected to note that Brooks Street and Lab Holdings LLC or other parties were not present in the closed session in which City of Glendale officials and staff discussed the Rockhaven Property on October 6, 2015.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading