Sanitariums in CV – Hillcrest Sanitarium, Part 1
Hillcrest Sanitarium was one of the larger sanitariums in the valley, housing from 50 up to nearly 200 patients in several buildings between the late 1920s until the late 1960s. Although they started as a tubercular sanitarium, they treated a wide variety of chronic illnesses, and morphed in later years to a home for the aged and at one point near the end as a facility for alcoholics. Its most infamous years were during WWII, when it was taken over by the government to house hundreds of Japanese-American internees that had contracted TB in the crowded internment camp conditions.
It was located on a small plateau at the top of Lowell Avenue, what is today Markridge Estates. Lowell Avenue turns into Markridge at the very top. From there, if you turn left onto Skyridge Drive, you are more or less following the old driveway of the now-gone sanitarium. An old topo map shows 15 separate buildings on the property including two large patient facilities. The houses on Sky View Lane and Brittany Lane sit right where the sanitarium buildings were. Look out over the valley from here and you’re seeing much the same view as thousands of patients of Hillcrest saw, and for hundreds of them, it was their last view of this world.
I was contacted by local resident James Gerhard who took an interest in my articles on local sanitariums, as he used to explore the ruins of Hillcrest Sanitarium as a kid in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He told me that there were concrete slabs where the buildings had been, and that as kids they would occasionally camp out on the slabs. He said the overgrown remnants of the old landscaping, a proliferation of exotic plants, gave it a creepy quality that was irresistible to a young boy.
James sent me some postcards that he had recently bought on eBay that show Hillcrest Sanitarium in its glory days. The landscaping is gorgeous, eucalyptus and cypress trees scattered across a base of pampas grass and lawn with flowering plants around the buildings, all framing sweeping vistas of the valley and Los Angeles. One card shows the “Trudeau Building” and another card the “Gould Building.” Both have a center lobby with two long wings on each side consisting of connected cottages, each with its own picture window looking out over the gardens and the valley. The postcard carries the slogan “Hillcrest Sanitarium, Elevation 2300 feet – Where health is in the air” and gives a phone number of Sunland 2277. It must have been a high-class place in its early years.
An L.A. Times article from 1932 describes its purchase by a new owner, a Dr. Coghlan, for $75,000, a phenomenal sum in the darkest years of the Great Depression. As stipulated in the deal, he was to put in another $100,000 in improvements to the nine-acre property. In the article, it mentions that it had been built four years earlier, and that it had beds for 50 patients.
Part of the drawing power of the property was that film star Clara Bow had spent some well-publicized time at Hillcrest Sanitarium for “recuperation from the effects of a strenuous career,” whatever that means. For my younger readers: Clara Bow was a silent film mega-star in the 1920s who mixed the glamour of Madonna with the out-of-control craziness of Lindsey Lohan. She was an inspiration for cartoon character Betty Boop, and the female lead character Peppy Miller in the Academy Award Best Picture “The Artist” was modeled after her. She was unstable and was in and out of sanitariums for much of her career. The fact that she was at Hillcrest at the very height of her fame attests to its high-class status.
Hillcrest continued to operate as a high-end sanitarium through the ’30s and I find reference to another wealthy doctor, Austrian-émigré Dr. Max Gecht, also owning it during that period.
When WWII started, Hillcrest Sanitarium was taken over by the U.S. government, and a whole new chapter of misery opened for Hillcrest.
I’ll cover that next week.