Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

The Classic Hotel Tujunga Lives On in Foothill Retirement Home

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

On the western edge of the Crescenta Valley, just slightly into Tujunga, lies a living piece of Old California. Foothill Retirement home was once the Hotel Tujunga, a health resort in the 1930s, and before that was a place wrapped in legends dating back to the Mexican era.

The legend starts in the early 1800s with the story of a Catholic nun by the name of Sister Elsie. According to local lore, Sister Elsie, a Sister of Charity, worked among the displaced local Indians of Los Angeles. She started a school and orphanage on the far western edge of Crescenta Valley, on land stretching from the Verdugo Golf Course up to Foothill Boulevard. In the course of her time here, the Indians dug a well for her, and the dominant peak above the valley was named Sister Elsie Peak (later renamed Mount Lukens). The well was used throughout the years by local ranchers and the occasional gang of banditos driving stolen horses up from L.A. to sell in the north. In fact, the original name of Tujunga Canyon Road was Horsethief Trail because of its association with the bandits of early L.A. In 1882, the land was settled by the Basque Begue family. They also used the well and promoted the Sister Elsie legend, and in 1930 a historical plaque was placed at the well.

In 1932, a health resort was built around the well, named the Hotel Tujunga. It was built in the Mission-style, with thick walls and arching verandas to cash in on the “Mission craze” that drew tourists in droves in the ’20s. In those days, it was surrounded with lush vineyards.

“At this beautiful hotel in the mountains, nature waits to help you cure any ailment. Pleasures abound!” read the ads. For almost two decades, invalids from the east came to the Hotel Tujunga for the curative powers of the clean dry air. Sometime around 1950 it transitioned into a retirement home, which it has been ever since. Currently called Foothill Retirement, it offers independent living and assisted living and has an Alzheimer’s unit.

I was recently invited to tour Foothill Retirement. It’s located on a quiet tree-lined residential street, nestled against the Verdugo Mountains. When I stepped into the beautiful Spanish-style courtyard, it was like stepping back in time. The buildings, the landscaping, the garden ornaments are reminiscent of the Mission-style architecture craze of the 1930s. It just screams “old California.” Smack in the middle of the entry courtyard is the famous “Sister Elsie’s Well” talked about in the legend. An ancient plaque telling her story is mounted on old wrought iron work, holding up a clay pot ready to lower to draw water. When I looked into the well, I expected the false bottom and strewn coins of typical faux wishing wells, but instead found it to be a real well! Stone lined and circular, it extended down into darkness. It was authentic.

I climbed the front steps, through the Spanish arches to a wide porch and sat on porch chairs looking out on the mature landscaping of the patio, shaded with big trees and serenaded by the sound of a fountain. The building exterior is immaculately restored, including the original wooden casement windows. Entering the interior was indeed like walking into an upscale Mission-style hotel from 80 years ago. The individual rooms are furnished in period appropriate furniture, and the common rooms have restored plaster art deco motifs throughout. We moved out of the main building to the back lawn planted with fruit trees, scattered with individual buildings for independent living. Even the landscaping is what you would have seen 80 years ago. I couldn’t help but think of our own Rockhaven Sanitarium. This is what it must have been like when it was open.

Foothill Retirement (formerly Tujunga Hotel) is located at 6720 Saint Esteban, two blocks below Foothill off Tujunga Canyon Road. I’m sure the retirement home won’t mind if you stop by to peek down the well and view the beautiful restoration of the courtyard. The past is alive here.