Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

Sanitariums in CV – A Little More on Hillcrest Sanitarium

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the  Crescenta Valley. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the
Crescenta Valley.
Reach him at

Before I launch into Kimball Sanitarium, the most infamous of the local sanitariums, I’ll backtrack a little and add some new info about Hillcrest Sanitarium.

As regular readers know, Hillcrest was located at the top of Lowell Avenue on a plateau overlooking the valley. It was a vast facility, starting in the ’20s as a high-end retreat for TB victims and mental patients. During WWII it was contracted by the U.S. government to house, under armed guard, Japanese-American TB sufferers from the western internment camps. It finished out its run as an alcoholism hospital in the late ’60s.

Longtime CV resident Karen Carlson wrote to me recently about her childhood memories of playing in the Hillcrest Sanitarium during the years it was temporarily abandoned, about 1964-65, before it was briefly reopened as the Pine Tree Lodge. It was then owned by the Milestone Foundation specializing in the treatment of alcoholism. Ah yes – the good old days – when kids were free to roam the local spooky abandoned sanitarium!

Karen said that she and her best friend Judy Thomsen would push their bikes up the long hill to the dilapidated old sanitarium. She had the feeling then that the facility had been abandoned suddenly as everything was in place – washcloths hung over the edges of the tub, furniture and wheelchairs ready for use, and paperwork and case notes strewn everywhere. The two girls found an old padded cell, and they played a dangerous game of “how long can you stand to be locked in the cell.” One girl would enter the small dark cell while the other would hold the door shut. Karen said her friend Judy was a big strong girl and had the advantage. When Judy was locked inside, she was able to force the door open when she wanted out. Karen on the other hand was held in just a wee bit too long by the stronger Judy, and it was terrifying, which made it all the more fun.

While the athletic Judy occupied herself with riding the old wicker wheelchairs down the driveways and ravines, crashing into bushes and trees, the more academic Karen sat and read the patients’ files. She became fascinated with one of the mental patients, a man she now calls “Mr. X.” As she read his case files she found herself rooting for his recovery, and bemoaning his relapses. It profoundly affected her life.     As an adult, she became mental health professional, getting her masters degree in Marriage and Family Counseling. And the athletic Judy? Well of course – she became a P.E. teacher! Nearly 50 years later they’re still best friends, and work together at Clark Magnet High School here in CV – Ms. Thomsen as a physical education teacher, and Ms. Carlson as the school counselor – perhaps due a little bit to their experiences at Hillcrest Sanitarium!

Warren Boehm, longtime local insurance broker and former member of the Montrose Search and Rescue Team, gave me a few of his memories as well.

His office was on Foothill at the bottom of Lowell and he well remembers the public bus stopping there and herds of workers getting off to make the long hike up to Hillcrest. If they were headed up the hill when he was leaving his office, he’d give them a ride. Warren told me he was amazed at how beautiful it was at Hillcrest. There were big pine trees up there and Warren says you felt like you were at Sequoia. They were all removed for the subdivision that is there today.

Warren also tells me that there was another sanitarium planned for that same area. In 1962, when the old Le Mesnager Ranch, now Deukmejian Park, was still being fought over by developers, one developer came in with a plan to build a 100-bed sanitarium on a portion of the ranch between Dunsmore and Boston avenues above Markridge Road. The plans didn’t get much traction as the residents up there fiercely fought the sanitarium idea to a standstill.

I guess one sanitarium in the neighborhood was enough!

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