Sanitariums in CV – Kimball Sanitarium Part 1
Finding information on the local sanitariums has been difficult. There’s this code of ethics called “patient confidentiality” that has been terribly inconvenient for local historians. A lot of what I have on Kimball Sanitarium is pieced together from random news clippings, eyewitness accounts from old-timers, and some often misleading Internet postings. Kimball Sanitarium is without doubt the most infamous of all the local sanitariums, as it was a true and classic insane asylum. Adding to the creepy factor was its setting, based in an old Victorian mansion with heavily wooded grounds making it invisible from the street. Let’s dive into what we know, and see if the facts match its lurid reputation.
The “Kimball” in Kimball Sanitarium was Merritt Kimball, a local boy, raised in La Crescenta and married at St. Luke’s. He and his brother Donald, who had lost a leg in France during WWI, seem to have been business partners in their sanitarium businesses.
The Kimball boys were raised in the mental health industry. Their father was Frederick Kimball, who was the first superintendant of Patton State Mental Hospital. Patton State Hospital opened in San Bernardino in 1893 as the Highland Insane Asylum. As I’ve discussed earlier, the national attitude for treating the mentally ill at that time was shifting from community or family responsibility (i.e. “the crazy aunt locked in the attic”) to the large hospital format that would hopefully ensure reasonably good treatment (mixed results on that front!) and provide some hope of recovery. The Highland Insane Asylum was the first mental hospital in Southern California, and housed approximately 1,000 men and women patients. This was before any aggressive treatments of mental illness had been developed, such as medication, shock treatment or lobotomies. The only treatment was rest, and of course isolation from the larger society. It was for the patients an “asylum” in the literal definition of the word: a place of refuge, a sanctuary.
Frederick Kimball retired from his position as head of the asylum in 1910 and it can be assumed that at sometime after this point he moved to La Crescenta with his wife to raise his two boys. He opened his own sanitarium, Banksia Place, at 5227 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood (the corner of Santa Monica and Kingsley). That site today is the Kingsley Elementary School.
Banksia Place appears to have been an upscale sort of sanitarium. An advertisement from that time described it as being devoted to the care and treatment of “the nervous.” How polite! It further describes the torments of those suffering from nervous exhaustion, and how contact with the “strong and healthy” can only further wear down the spent nerves of Banksia Place’s prospective patients. It invites the reader to “get away for awhile” in the distinctly un-institutional air of this sanitarium, with individual cottages and lush rose-covered gardens.
According to the ad, prominent business and professional men had taken advantage of the offer of the kind and intelligent ministrations of Mr. and Mr. Kimball. It can be assumed as well that Banksia Place’s Hollywood location gave Kimball a film industry connection, which perhaps later carried over to La Crescenta’s Kimball Sanitarium being noted as the screen actor’s sanitarium.
Notice that Frederick Kimball of Banksia Place, and his son Merritt of Kimball Sanitarium were not doctors as we would expect for a mental health facility. Nor was Agnes Richards of Rockhaven Sanitarium or Milton Hofert of Dunsmore Sanitarium. They were administrators, there to “warehouse” the sick or insane, with little hope of any kind of medical cure, and therefore no need for a medical degree. I’ve heard it argued that the popularity of shock treatment and lobotomies, which later were found to be medically inconsistent in positive results, were due in part to sanitarium owners’ desires to do something – anything – to help their patients.
Young Merritt Kimball grew up around the mentally ill, and so it was perhaps natural that the La Crescenta resident would, in the local economic boom of the early ‘20s, look along Foothill Boulevard for a suitable property to start his own “insane asylum.”