Yes, it’s true. CV was the site of something special in women’s history, and actually, for human dignity. Thanks to the vision of a strong woman, Agnes Richards, founder of Rockhaven Sanitarium in 1923, the lives of women with mental disabilities were immeasurably improved.
Agnes Richards has a tale that is inspirational. Although born in the U.S. in the late 1800s, she spent much of her childhood in Europe with her aristocratic German grandparents. She returned to the US as a teenager, fluent in English, Polish, Russian and German, mastering Spanish as well when she returned. She earned an undergraduate degree in psychiatry, settled in Chicago, married, had a baby, and her life seemed set. Fate slammed her down hard when, three days after her baby was born, on Christmas Eve no less, her young husband was killed in an auto accident. Although she was well educated, she had no saleable skills.
Not one to be held down, she started baking bread in her own oven and delivering loaves to customers on foot, building up enough money to enroll in nursing school. She served a stint in the Red Cross in WWI, and afterward with her background in psychiatry, she became a nurse in state mental hospitals. She was shocked by the brutal treatment of women with even mild mental illnesses. They were caged in prison-like conditions with no real treatment of any kind. She knew she could do better for these forgotten women.
Now remarried, she set out for California with a dream of creating a “haven” for women, “for the sick and weary where the air was clear and pure and the sun shone warm.” She bought one of the many rock houses in the Crescenta Valley and in 1923, with a handful of patients, she founded Rockhaven Sanitarium, designed specifically for women.
Her unique focus was to create a place for these troubled women with a peaceful atmosphere that would instill a sense of “home.” As she expanded Rockhaven she incorporated beautiful gardens and home-like furnishings. She also gave these women something they would not find at most other facilities – a sense of dignity.
Her treatment philosophy attracted a who’s who of highly successful ladies in business, education and entertainment. She celebrated these women’s past achievements and enriched their lives with entertainers and educators she brought in for special events and classes.
Mother’s Day was a huge deal at Rockhaven and all the ladies, dressed in their best, were invited to a big party. I’ve talked to people who had their mothers at Rockhaven, who related that they were jealous of the life the ladies led and they wished they could stay there too!
She was highly successful in her business even though she sometimes “carried” patients that were unable to pay. One example was Marilyn Monroe’s famed long-lost mother Gladys Ely Baker. When the troubled starlet died, and lawyers soaked up what was left of the actress’s estate, Ms. Richards allowed Gladys to stay on without charge.
In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Agnes began handing off the day-to-day operation of Rockhaven to her granddaughter Patricia Traviss who continued Richards’ philosophies and further enhanced the treatment facility.
As Ms. Richards slowly began to retire she filled her life with travel, including three trips around the world. As she traveled, Rockhaven was always on her mind and she brought back ornaments and rugs from all over the world to furnish the facility.
Agnes Richards died in 1967 but she left a legacy of a life well-lived and made a huge contribution to the treatment of women with mental illnesses. She helped changed the mind-set that mental illness was untreatable and patients should be warehoused. Her patients lived good lives despite their disabilities due to the vision of human dignity that one strong woman displayed.
The City of Glendale, that now owns Rockhaven and plans to convert it into a community center/library, has produced a film about Agnes Richards and Rockhaven. “Exploring Historic Glendale: Rockhaven” can be borrowed from Glendale libraries, or viewed online on the GTV6 page of the City’s website.