Friends of Rockhaven Sanitarium
“Get Committed to Rockhaven Sanitarium!” That’s the tongue-in-cheek motto of a new group in the Crescenta Valley dedicated to preserving and celebrating the history of the 90-year-old sanitarium. The Friends of Rockhaven are documenting its long history and giving tours of its empty halls and quiet grounds.
Sanitariums were the founding industry of La Crescenta and dozens of them, for treatment of both lung diseases and mental problems, flourished here in the early years. They’re all gone now except for Rockhaven, the only one to survive intact. It’s a large facility – 3½ acres and 14 buildings built in the ‘20s and ‘30s, located on Honolulu Avenue, just east of La Crescenta Avenue. Many of us grew up wondering what was behind the mysterious ivy covered walls that guarded the huge compound, imagining an insane asylum with chains, padded cells and screaming inmates. Turns out it was a pretty nice place, a high class home for women with mental issues.
It started in 1923 with six patients in a rock house (thus “Rockhaven”) and grew steadily until at its peak it had almost 120 patients. It was always exclusively for mentally impaired women.
Rockhaven founder Agnes Richards had worked in hard-core insane asylums and abhorred the treatment of the patients, especially the women. At Rockhaven, she vowed to treat them with dignity in a home-like atmosphere, and that she did for almost 80 years, passing the torch to her granddaughter Pat Traviss. It was proudly run by women, for women.
In 2008 the Glendale Parks and Community Services Dept. bought the intact property but plans to restore and develop the property for the community had to be put on hold as the economy recovered. During those five years, the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley partnered with the city – the city took care of the outside while the historical society maintained the inside. Hundreds of hours have been put in by historical society volunteers dusting, mopping, cleaning windows, and generally making the abandoned interiors sparkle.
The interiors are a time capsule as many of the patients left their possessions behind. With each trip inside, the volunteers make new discoveries tucked in corners of the rooms – items of clothing, ID bracelets, and ancient photos of the patients in their youth. The interior décor and the furniture is an eclectic mix ranging from the ‘20s (classic two-tone tiling in the bathrooms – each one with a different color scheme) to the ‘60s (Danish Modern and naugahyde).
This year the historical society spun off a separate group, the Friends of Rockhaven. It’s led by CV native Joanna Linkchorst who is full of energy and optimism. She feels the site is a monument to Agnes Richards’ goal of dignity and grace for mentally impaired women, and that the lush oak-covered property should be treated with as much respect as Richards had for her own patients. The Friends of Rockhaven will continue to care for the interiors, research famous residents, and educate the community about the gem that Rockhaven is. As well, Joanna hopes that her new organization can be the catalyst to help Glendale move forward with its plans for the property.
On the tours Joanna leads through the secluded gardens and quiet corridors, she tells the stories of the individuals who lived there – the Vaudeville actresses and silent movie stars, the scholars and businesswomen, the wives, mothers, and grandmothers. She talks about the celebrities, Billie Burke (Glenda the good witch) and Marilyn Monroe’s famed long-lost mother. There are those too who found Rockhaven so nice that they stayed on even after death.
Rockhaven is truly one of the most amazing treasures of our valley, and the Friends of Rockhaven can use your help to keep it alive. If you want to be involved, want to support the group, or are just curious, email Joanna at FriendsOfRockhaven@gmail.com, visit them at their website www.cvhistory.org/rockhaven, or like them on Facebook. You can also pick up info from the brochure box in front of the iron gates at 2713 Honolulu Ave. Rockhaven is a proud but lonely relic. It needs friends like us.