Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

Kimball Sanitarium Part 4 – Anti-Sanitarium Movement


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

As I’ve documented in previous columns, the sanitarium business was booming in the Crescenta Valley in the late ’20s. One old-timer stated that at that period there were some 20 different sanitariums locally for the aged, for lung diseases and for mental illness. During that same period there was a housing boom, and new homeowners were naturally shy of building next to insane asylums or hospitals for tuberculosis, at that time an incurable infectious disease. Real estate interests and sanitariums began to find themselves at odds. Residents began showing up at permit application hearings for new sanitariums, and in October of 1928 a permit for a new sanitarium, just across the street from Kimball’s, was denied based on the objections of locals.

Tension came to a head in November of 1928 when Agnes Richards, owner of Rockhaven, applied to the county to expand her sanitarium. Several local activists showed up at the county Board of Supervisors meeting to testify against Rockhaven’s expansion. Amongst the valid objections were some wild accusations. One resident claimed that the presence of mental patients at Rockhaven was devaluing his property on Briggs above Foothill. Another testified that “wild-looking men” peering out through the fence of Rockhaven had been scaring women. A former cook at Rockhaven testified that a patient there had poisoned the food of other patients. The Board of Supervisors issued a “stop-work order” for Rockhaven, and the County Public Welfare Committee was ordered to investigate.

Local activists kept up the pressure by immediately calling a couple of mass-meetings. They were well attended with realtors and prominent families weighing in, calling for a total ban on sanitariums and establishing a fund to threaten legal action against the owners. It was proposed that meetings be held with the owners to ask them formally to move out of the area. Even the local chamber of commerce was flirting with condemning the sanitariums. Out of these meetings was formed the “La Crescenta Protective Association” with several prominent locals on its board of directors and its stated goal to get rid of sanitariums.

Unfortunately there was a faction that was still throwing out wild accusations. A speaker claimed that Rockhaven had, instead of the 30 female patients stated by Agnes Richards, upwards of 60 male and female patients, and a former employee told the crowd that Agnes Richards had been drunk most of the time she worked there.     Agnes Richards fought back hard with a $200,000 slander suit against two of the speakers, one of which she won several months later. The County Public Welfare Committee brought back a report that the accusations made against Rockhaven were false. The Valley was deeply divided.

We know from looking at Merritt Kimball’s preserved personal scrapbook that he was watching all this closely. Every news article about the Rockhaven fight is carefully dated and pasted in the scrapbook. He must have known that if the anti-sanitarium forces gained ground, he would be targeted next. Looking at the scrapbooks entries, we see that at this juncture, Merritt Kimball began to get involved in local service groups. He threw himself fully into the task of becoming a community leader. Perhaps he saw this as his business’s salvation – perhaps he just simply wanted to give back to the community. By the early ’30s, he had leadership roles in the Red Cross, Masons, CV Chamber of Commerce, Verdugo Hills Merchants Association, Foothill Boulevard Association, Disaster Relief Corporation and American Legion. In 1935 he was elected to the Glendale Board of Education, on which he served for over a decade.

We never hear from the La Crescenta Protective League again and formal opposition to the sanitariums died. In 1933 Merritt Kimball opened a second sanitarium, Mt. Lukens Sanitarium (later Dunsmore Sanitarium, now Dunsmore Park) with no opposition.

What his motivations initially were for becoming involved in community leadership we’ll never really know, but it’s obvious that by the late ’30s he was fully engaged in making our community a better place. Although his business was not popular locally, he had become a true community and business leader.