Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

Sanitariums in CV – Kimball Sanitarium Part 2

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

Last week I wrote about the background of Merritt Kimball, owner of Kimball Sanitarium. He had been raised in the fledgling mental health industry in Southern California, his father having been head of the first state run insane asylum in San Bernardino, and later a large private sanitarium in Hollywood for the treatment of “nervous disorders.”

Merritt grew up in La Crescenta and decided to open a mental sanitarium locally in partnership with his brother Dr. Donald Kimball. Donald Kimball had lost a leg in France in WWI as a motorcycle messenger. Near the front lines, motorcycle messengers would speed along the country roads at night with no lights on so as not to attract enemy fire. He had hit a truck head-on, also driving with no lights. He nearly died and was lucky to get off with just an amputated leg. This accident had cut short his goal of completing his doctorate in dentistry at USC. After a long recuperation, he did become a prominent doctor in La Cañada. And what better medical field for a man with one leg? Podiatry, of course.

Merritt and Donald had plenty of choices in the Crescenta Valley for their proposed sanitarium. In the early ’20s there were many large rambling estates left over from the 1880s when La Crescenta had attracted several wealthy residents looking for a healthy climate. The Kimballs chose for their sanitarium a 10-acre estate adjacent to the huge La Crescenta Hotel at Rosemont and Foothill. We have a wonderful photo of it in 1910 showing a lush avocado orchard interspersed with mature pines, all surrounding a Victorian mansion. The estate had been built sometime in the 1880s, presumably for a Father Queteaux who had been a priest at San Juan Capistrano and a missionary in North Africa. That site today is the Ralphs and Rite-Aid on Foothill.

Most of what we know about the property comes from longtime residents Joe and Linda Rakasits, who today live nearly next door to where Kimball Sanitarium was.     Joe and his brothers had the demolition contract for the old sanitarium in the ’60s, so Joe and Linda had spent some time exploring the abandoned asylum before it was torn down.

The Victorian house that was central to the sanitarium, and home to Merritt and his wife, was beautifully built. There was a wide full-width porch, and the front door opened onto a reception area with a parlor and office beyond. Central in the living room was an ornate fireplace featuring ceramic tiles of classic Greek figures, all surrounded with intricately carved wood. The second story was accented with one of those cool octagonal “cupolas” with a big weathervane on top. Joe says there was extensive use of cherry wood throughout, in bookshelves and staircases, and that the level of craftsmanship was amazing. By the way, a gorgeous cherry wood staircase was pulled out of the old house and installed in a new home up near Pinecrest. Check your staircases, readers!

There was a big barn to the east and behind the house were several small cottages with Murphy beds, presumably for patients who could be trusted. The main event however was the building to the west that had the padded cells. Joe describes it as a cement blockhouse, long and low. On one end was an open shower area. A very wide hallway ran the length, with padded cells on each side, featuring leather manacles.

Joe salvaged a few items from the sanitarium that were being thrown out, including one of Merritt Kimball’s scrapbooks from the ’20s and ’30s when his business was growing. It’s a fascinating book, full of news clippings about incidents that touched on his sanitarium. Equally interesting is the book the clippings are pasted into – an old patient logbook with their names and a running account of their daily expenses. Thanks for saving that, Joe, and thanks for sharing it with us!

Next week I’ll use that scrapbook to glean what we can about the lives of the patients of Kimball Sanitarium.