Rockhaven – A Woman’s Story

Posted by on May 12th, 2016 and filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Agnes Richards

Agnes Richards


There have been some famous people who have lived in Glendale, most notably John Wayne who attended Wilson Middle School and Glendale High School. But in a quiet area of far north Glendale, on Honolulu Avenue behind iron gates, a type of small revolution began that resulted in changes in the ways women were looked at and the way mental health treatment was administered.
In 1920 the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote and in 1923 Agnes Richards opened Rockhaven Sanitarium with six women residents.
Rockhaven has had a lot of media coverage including its purchase by the City of Glendale, the plans that were derailed by the downward economy, the creation of the Friends of Rockhaven (a group of concerned community members that wanted to protect and preserve the property), the city’s outreach to developers regarding the property and, most recently, the historical listing of Rockhaven by the State Historical Resources Commission. That approval was forwarded to the Keeper of the National Register for review and, once approved, Rockhaven will be formally listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
But it is important to remember during the battle of what to do with the property how this oasis for women in need was established at a time when a woman in business was rare, and women’s mental health care could be nightmarish at best.
By all accounts Richards did not think of herself as a feminist or as they were called in those days a suffragette.
“From what her granddaughter, Patricia, told me her grandmother was just the type of person who needed to help,” said Joanna Linkchorst, president of Friends of Rockhaven.
Richards married David Travis in 1904 in Chicago. Their son Clarence was born in 1905 and David died in 1906. Richards worked as a servant at Nebraska State Hospital and then at the Independence State Hospital in Iowa where she met James Richards. They were married in 1917. The family moved to San Bernardino. She received her RN (registered nurse) license in 1922, then opened Rockhaven in 1923. By 1930 she was divorced.
This timeline is important to note because of the history of what it was like for women, especially the stigma of divorce for a woman, and how mental health was viewed at that time.
Women were wives, not businesswomen, although more and more were attempting to expand into the new realms of independence.
Richards opened Rockhaven Sanitarium as a sanctuary for women where they were treated with respect. The treatment of mental illness at the time had been going through a transition. The autobiography, “A Mind That Found Itself” by Clifford Beers in 1908 had opened a conversation as Beers spoke of his own mental illness and the asylums he had been in. He described the first time he was taken to a facility that his room “soon became a chamber of torture.”
The treatments commonly used in sanitariums in the 1920s and ’30s included insulin-induced comas, lobotomies, malarial infections and electroshock therapy. Rockhaven did use insulin treatment, hydrotherapy and electric shock but Richards’ treatment was more than that. While it is now commonplace to hear the phrase “caring for the whole patient,” Richards and her granddaughter Patricia applied this approach before it became mainstream. The residents were never called patients, Linkchorst said. The grounds were reminiscent of a garden resort with beautiful landscaping and sculptures about the lawn. The rooms were homey, filled with residents’ personal items.
Rockhaven was not a locked down facility, Linkchorst said.
Some residents like Gladys Eley, the mother of actress Marilyn Monroe, actually “escaped” a few times during her almost 15-year stay at Rockhaven. Linkchorst said there are reports that spoke of residents of Rockhaven finding their way to a nearby bank.
“[The bank employee] said she would just call Rockhaven and they would come after the woman,” Linkchorst said.
Women stayed at Rockhaven for a variety of reasons. It really didn’t take that much to get a woman committed in those days, especially if it was their husband signing the papers.
“With one woman [who was a Rockhaven resident] her husband said she wasn’t acting like herself,” Linkchorst said.
That was considered enough to label her mentally ill and have her placed in a facility.
Other reasons for coming to Rockhaven ranged from women going through menopause to those afflicted with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Richards took them in and gave them all the same amount of respect and dignity.
Richards married again in 1940 to Mr. Hickman, and traveled. Her granddaughter Patricia took over the day-to-day operations at Rockhaven and continued, then expanded, the treatment of women with dignity and understanding.
But Rockhaven was not a great money-making venture.
“You don’t make money running a sanitarium,” Linkchorst said.
Thankfully Richards was a savvy businesswoman. She purchased homes in La Cañada Flintridge and Verdugo City (which is now Glendale). She built Rockhaven one building at time, constantly expanding but doing so with great fiscal responsibility.
Her Rockhaven women included many from Hollywood including Lady Sylvia Ashley, who was married to Douglas Fairbanks and then later to Clark Gable. Another wife of Gable’s, famed acting teacher Josephine Dillon, called Rockhaven home as did vaudeville actress Marion Statler Rose, Ziegfeld girl-turned-producer Peggy Fears, Babe Egan, leader of the all-girl band The Hollywood Redheads, and Glenda the Good Witch actress Billie Burke.
But at Rockhaven all women were treated equally, and were made to feel safe.
Richards may not have thought of herself as a woman pioneer but history proves otherwise. Glendale not only has a cowboy star to boast about but also a strong woman who defied stereotypes – not only of herself but also of  the women she cared for.
“Her [daughters] said their mother always told them they could do anything,” Linkchorst said.
And Richards led by example.

Categories: News

1 Response for “Rockhaven – A Woman’s Story”

  1. Brock Evans says:

    I found this article so interesting, informative, and well written I just wanted to post this comment to let you know. My mother recently moved into a nearby assisted living center – (wonderful facility and staff). During my visit last week, she wanted to go to lunch so I wheeled her down this vibrant and pleasantly active street to a nearby cafe. We shared almost a wordless moment passing by a young mother pushing her daughter in a stroller and I commented in passing that someday she’ll be pushing you which is what all of us seemed to be thinking. I once again noticed the Rockhaven sign in the window and again wondered if this was a shelter or treatment facility it was so discreetly identified. Now I know – thank you for answering my questions in advance and informing interested persons in local history. As I was leaving to return home my mother handed me a copy of the Crescenta Valley Weekly, knowing of my voracious reading habit. Oh by the way she also updated her voter registration. On the way home I saw all these signs about Prop N and thought to myself I better look that up and get informed in case she asks. I also just finished reading your column on that measure and learning that 2,000 registered Glendale voters feel so overtaxed they can no longer enjoy life liberty and the pursuit of happiness, leaving me speechless at just the right time to conclude this post.

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