Sanitariums in CV – Rockhaven Sanitarium Part 1
After hearing about Hillcrest Sanitarium, one might get the impression that all the sanitariums were somewhat nightmarish. Not so.
Hillcrest had a bumpy career, starting as a high-end sanitarium and slowly declining as its age began to show. It had that brief interlude during the war as a tragic dead-end for many Japanese-American internment camp prisoners that had the misfortune to contract TB. It sounds overall like it was run professionally but with an eye to maximizing profit, and at least one of its longtime owners had a dubious reputation.
However, the legacy of Rockhaven Sanitarium stands in stark contrast to the reputation of Hillcrest. It was conceived and operated as a caring, sedate and gentle home for women who, for varying reasons, had a few marbles missing. It was family-run throughout its career and was always high-class, but not in an ostentatious way. And amazingly, it never seemed to go through a period of decline.
To fully appreciate the enlightened way Rockhaven was conceived and run, one must look at the history of treating mental illness in the U.S.
Obviously mental instability has always been a part of the human experience, but how we have dealt with it over recorded history varies wildly. In the U.S., before the middle of the 19th Century, insanity was largely a family matter and we still hear legends of crazy aunts who were locked in the attic. Those who had no family were corralled in cages or animal pens, or even put on display in sideshows.
In the mid-1800s reformers like Dorthea Dix began to advocate for better treatment of the mentally ill, and with public pressure large mental hospitals were established all over the U.S. Between 1840 and 1890, the population of mental patients in formal hospitals swelled from 2500 to 74,000. Although these were better conditions than the mentally ill had experienced before, it was still barbaric by our standards. Patients had no rights, and were sometimes employed as, for lack of a better term, slave labor. It was ridiculously easy to have someone committed, and the reasons for confinement in mental institutions were broad. Bi-polar disease and schizophrenia, brain tumors and senility, all the way down to alcoholism, post-partum depression, and even masturbation were all considered “insanity” severe enough for institutionalization.
In these conditions women were particularly vulnerable, and physical and sexual abuse of female patients by other inmates, hospital staff and even outsiders was sadly common. If you’ve ever read the biography of film star Francis Farmer, who was briefly held at Kimball’s Sanitarium where Ralphs on Foothill is today, you know what kind of nightmarish abuse was on tap for female mental patients even into our recent history.
The 2008 Clint Eastwood movie “The Changling” gives us the proper visuals of what life was like in a ’20s-era L.A. mental institution. The movie, based on a true story, had the female protagonist tossed into the “Psychopathic Ward” of the L.A. County Hospital for merely challenging police authority and suffering the brutality of the prison-like conditions there.
It was in this atmosphere of brutal treatment of institutionalized women with mental disabilities that a nurse, Agnes Richards, began to figure out that there had to be a better way. Richards had worked in both Patton State Mental Hospital in San Bernardino and in the L.A. County Hospital, the same place and time-frame “The Changling” was set in. She felt that dignified individualized care in a home-like setting was a preferred alternative to what she had seen in the big institutions she had been treating patients in.
In 1923, she scraped together a thousand dollars and rented a two story stone house in the new community of Verdugo City. She attracted six patients for what she called her “secluded sanctuary,” and appropriately named her little stone house “Rockhaven.” It was one of the first private mental hospitals in California. It was unique in one overriding statement of fact: In a time in our history when women were marginalized, Rockhaven has the distinction of having been run by women for women.