A Revised View of Kimball Sanitarium – Part 4
We now wrap up our fresh look at Kimball Sanitarium, a mental institution that operated from 1922 to 1962 and was located where our Ralphs is today. I interviewed Dave Kimball, the son of Merritt Kimball who owned and operated the sanitarium.
We must remember how difficult the job was. It was a 24/7 commitment and was fraught with danger. Merritt Kimball’s scrapbook (obtained from a dumpster when the facility closed) was filled with news clippings of violent patients in other facilities who attacked staff or doctors.
And, in fact, that happened to Merritt. Dave relayed his boyhood memory of getting an urgent call from the sanitarium to come quick. Dave and his brother ran there to find Merritt wrestling with a violent patient who was trying to escape. Merritt was permanently injured in the fight, never completely recovering.
Dave went off to the service and college but he recalled the wind-down of the facility.
“Approximately five years before closing, Merritt Kimball converted the sanitarium to a rest home facility exclusively. Since I was gone, in the Navy or in college during most of those years, I don’t know if that change wasn’t profitable enough for him, resulting in his retirement and leasing of the property and demolishing the buildings. He was 63 when that occurred and he had worked extremely hard keeping it going. My belief is he was just tired and ready to retire. He spent the last 20 years of his life in ill health.”
In 1958, the Crescenta Valley was targeted for a new state-of-the-art hospital. The Kimball Sanitarium site was favored over others. In fact the LA Times reported that it was a done deal. However, developer Morgan Greene, who owned Indian Springs, swept in and somehow wrested the contract away from Kimball. (From that deal Verdugo Hills Hospital was built.) This must have been further disappointment for Merritt.
He cut a deal with a development company to build a shopping mall on the site of Kimball Sanitarium. Merritt owned the property outright, so he leased the land to the developer. Dave Kimball and his wife moved into a property next door to the sanitarium site, just in time to watch the demolition process. Dave said it was the saddest period of his life watching it be torn down.
One of the contractors doing the demolition was Joe Rakisits. Joe has an eternal sense of the importance of local history. He saved a few items from the wrecking ball and has provided an eyewitness account of the layout of the place.
The buildings of the sanitarium and the old La Crescenta Hotel were demolished. The land, which had followed the natural contour of the valley, was graded to provide a flat pad for the new shopping center. The excavated dirt was trucked up Angeles Crest Highway to a site just beyond the first curve. There was enough dirt dumped there to provide a pad for a small residential development called Arroyo Summit. A few years ago, I hiked around the base of the dumpsite. I found a lot of old building rubble, which I would assume is from Kimball Sanitarium.
Dave related one humorous element of the demolition and grading of the property. One of the mature palm trees on the site was sold to someone who promised to haul it away, but was late in doing so. The grading of the property went around the big palm tree leaving a tall, skinny plateau of dirt with a big palm tree on top. It was finally retrieved by the buyer.
Merritt stayed local, on Briggs Avenue, but died in 1992 after a series of strokes.
So today, when you walk the aisles of Ralph’s remember Kimball Sanitarium. The dairy section would have been the administration building, an old Victorian mansion. The bakery would have been patient rooms. Mistakenly, I had portrayed the sanitarium’s past as sordid, an insane asylum that was “notorious” or “infamous.” Actually it was a place where dedicated people performed a difficult and dangerous service for those with mental illness.