Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

Sanitariums in CV – Rockhaven Sanitarium Part 2

I wrote last week about the brutal nature of the treatment of mental illness during the ’20s, particularly for women, and how one woman, Agnes Richards, thought she could do a better job. She believed that with humane, caring treatment, in a home-like setting, some minds would naturally come back to sanity. Certainly the relatives of the mentally ill would choose this over the cold lock-ups otherwise available.

Apparently Richards was right, as her business did well right from the beginning. In 1923, she started with six women patients in a rented two-story rock house on Honolulu (thus the “rock” in Rockhaven). We have a nice photo of that house from the early years of Rockhaven Sanitarium. It shows the first story with a broad, deep porch, draped with hanging vines and trellises. The second story is set back providing a balcony overlooking the front yard. The front yard is gorgeous, with lawns, walkways and rose beds, and shaded with tall trees. Patients are visible lounging on chairs in the sunshine. It’s a picture of serenity.

As her business quickly grew, Richards bought the rock house. In keeping with her philosophy of providing home-like settings for her patients, she began buying other homes on that block. Her patient load was booming, so through the ’30s she began to have larger buildings built that could accommodate patients that needed more attentive supervision. These larger dormitory-style buildings still simulated a home-like atmosphere with furnishings one would find in homes of that era, featuring a common “living room” with a library and piano, and private little gardens tucked into nooks of the grounds. A small hospital-style building was built for patients needing constant care. Service facilities were also built, such as garages, maintenance shops, a large dining hall, and a big, professionally furnished kitchen.

The landscaping was integral to the serene atmosphere that Agnes Richards was trying to create for her patients. Ivy covered stone walls separated Rockhaven from the outside world. Massive oaks and other trees shaded most of the grounds, and meandering walkways connected the buildings. Flowerbeds, hidden grottos, secluded patios, and a pond and fountains gave the patients comfort. A Rockhaven brochure stated: “The tranquil beauty of the gardens, and the opportunity for quiet seclusion – all help to hasten the patient’s early recovery.” In the ’60s, the landscaping was enriched even further with the hiring of landscape architect Ivan Cole. Ivan was a giant but gentle Welshman, who had an almost spiritual reverence for plants, trees – and Rockhaven. Under his guidance the sanitarium won a prestigious landscaping award in 1966, and bloomed beyond any other landscaping in the valley.

Soon Rockhaven had grown to 3½ acres with 15 buildings. The patient load steadily increased and evolved. The 1930 census recorded 44 women patients ranging from their 20s into their 80s. By 1950, that number had risen to 100 patients with nearly 30 nurses, and many support staff. The facility slowly evolved from “nervous to mental cases” with available treatments including electroshock, hydrotherapy and massage therapy, to a largely geriatric patient population.

The patients led rich lives with constant entertainment and educational activities, such as cooking and gardening classes, crafts, guest lecturers and music. Seasonally there was the Easter Hat Parade and the Mother’s Day celebration (since most of the patients were moms) was huge.

Everything good comes to an end, and in 2001 Rockhaven was sold to a larger elder-care company that had plans to level the place, and build a massive multi-story assisted living facility. Sensing resistance from the community, they shelved those plans and instead put the land up for sale for development. Fortunately for the community, the City of Glendale stepped in and purchased the property for preservation under the leadership of then-Councilman John Drayman. Someday, when the economy rebounds, Rockhaven will be restored and presented to the community for use as a park, offices, classrooms, museums and libraries.

In the meantime it sits in suspended animation, a proud but lonely relic, the last intact example of the many sanitariums of the Crescenta Valley.

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