Sanitarium holds history in arrested decay

After Billie Burke, best known for her portrayal of Glinda the Good Witch in the 1939 version of “The Wizard of Oz," left the Emerald City, she found herself past the yellow brick road of Hollywood and behind the gates of the Rockhaven Sanitarium in Glendale.

Located on Honolulu Avenue, the sanitarium stands as a treasured site of historic Glendale, an intimate and aging symbol of a time when the valley was dispersed with resting and recovery homes due to its clean air quality.

Patricia Traviss, the granddaughter of Rockhaven’s founder, Agnes Mary Richards, sold the site in 2001 to the Ararat Home of Los Angeles, Inc., which provides nursing homes and care for elderly Armenians in Southern California.

When the company sought to sell the establishment in 2006, the city purchased it in 2008 for $8.25 million.

At the time of the purchase, the city’s plans included turning Rockhaven into a community center that included a park and a library; however, lack of budgeting has stalled further development of the site.

Jess Duran, director of community services and parks, says he “wouldn’t even begin to guess” how much funding restoration and development would require, but maintaining the grounds costs $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

When Richards originally opened the sanitarium in 1923, she created a refuge for mentally ill women during a time when such conditions — including less severe forms — were regarded with considerable taboo.

After serving as a nurse for the American Red Cross during World War I, Richards moved to California and began working for Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino.

Troubled by the way mentally ill women were treated in both San Bernardino and Los Angeles, Richards strove to launch an establishment that would “provide respectful care and allow women to recover,” according to Joanna Linkchorst, head of the Friends of Rockhaven.

“It was really easy to throw women, in particular, into mental hospitals, where they were drugged and just locked away,” Linkchorst said.

At the time Rockhaven was opened, there were about 25 sanitariums in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, according to Linkchorst. Though most of them were respiratory homes, Richards founded Rockhaven for “mild mental disorders” and only female inhabitants were allowed.

In compliance with the sanitarium’s compassionate care standards, the women were never called patients — they were either referred to as “residents” or as “ladies.”

Of these 25 establishments, Rockhaven was one of the last remaining ones, until it closed its doors in 2006.

According to Mike Lawler, former president of the Historical Society of Crescenta Valley, sanitariums were the area’s first industry, as people from different parts of the country traveled to the “fantastic paradise that is Southern California” in order to recover from physical and mental illnesses, including alcoholism and tuberculosis.

Known for its high quality care of patients, Rockhaven attracted many high-end residents, including Burke, Gladys Pearl Baker (Marilyn Monroe’s mother) and Frances Farmer, the notoriously troubled actress who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Though Rockhaven started with six women, Richards’ commitment to “dignified, individualized healthcare” increased residency to 20 women a year later, Linkchorst said.

The site is closed to the public. However, Friends of Rockhaven provides private tours. Linkchorst says that though the city has done its best in protecting Rockhaven from further damage and arrested decay, those interested in a tour are still required to sign waivers due to safety reasons.

Currently, the sanitarium occupies about 3.3 acres. The gates of Rockhaven open the doors to a glimpse of Glendale’s earlier days, as most of the sanitarium’s 14 buildings were built between 1920 and 1939, according Linkchorst.

Laden with oak trees and intricate landscaping, the tranquillity of the grounds indeed provided a wholesome retreat for recovering residents.

“It’s like a time capsule,” Lawler said. “It’s an amazing place.”

For more information, go to Facebook and search for friendsofrockhaven.

Agnessa Kasumyan is a freelance writer.


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