“The intersection of stardom and madness, mystery and decay meet at the crossroads of Rockhaven Sanitarium. The once-thriving refuge for troubled minds now sits fallow, crumbling and silent as it awaits an uncertain future, much like its past residents.” -Sezin Koehler, author American Monsters.
I recently had the privilege of touring the abandoned Rockhaven Santitarium with Atlas Obscura. Hidden away in the quiet Crescenta Valley, it’s quite a gem. While I anticipated a creepy good time when I signed up for the tour, what I got was a lesson in feminist history.
In the early 1920’s Agnes Richards, a widow and single mother, worked as a psychiatric nurse at some of the most notorious asylums in the country. Agnes was appalled by what she saw at these facilities, specifically the treatment of female patients. Remember that these were the days of “female hysteria” where anything from lesbianism to menopause or even your husband’s affair with his secretary could land you in an asylum. It was not uncommon for men of means to have their wives committed when they found a new girlfriend as it was considered quicker and tidier than a divorce. There are even stories of families sending their children to asylums for the summer so the parents could travel unencumbered through Europe. It was terrifying easy to have someone committed and nearly impossible to be released on your own accord.
The treatment of patients was deplorable in asylums. There was little expectation that the patients would recover and therefore little or no regard to their health or safety. These were still the early years of psychiatry and mental illness was viewed with great shame. Once someone was committed they were often forgotten about, deemed an embarrassment to their family.
Agnes Richards founded Rockhaven in 1923 to be the antithesis of these asylums. With the intent to cure the women (and the occasional man) rather than hide and control the “mental defectives” as they were called in the system. She sought to treat people with dignity while they were in residence. To begin, Rockhaven was more of a spa or a retreat than an asylum. To look at the rooms today, while they are indeed in need of repair now, you can still see the happy colors and attention to details meant to cheer up the residents. Never referred to as patients, they were simply called “the ladies.”
The ladies of Rockhaven were expected to dress themselves and attend three meals a day in the cafeteria and to contribute to the best of their abilities. They were also expected to engage with their surroundings in the hopes of reintegrating back into society as soon as they were able. Gardening classes in the three-and-a-half acre meticulously manicured property as well as day trips into LA, music and art therapy were all offered. Again, this was groundbreaking in the world of mental health where caged beds and electroshock therapy were still the norm.
Rockhaven was the first mental health institution for women by women and was founded just three short years after women gained the right to vote. This was almost unimaginable at the time yet Agnes maintained Rockhaven until 1967, then passed it on to her granddaughter.
The original building and grounds were lovely:
Now, let’s talk about the parties. Agnes believed it was important to remove the stigma of mental illness so family members were invited to visit every day and there were parties held for every possible occasion. Mother’s day, birthdays, practically every day was a reason to celebrate.
Among Rockhaven’s famous residents was Marilyn Monroe’s mother, Gladys Eley, who resided there for 15 years and was a bit of an escape artist. She once ran away and got married then returned of her own accord. Billie Burke, best known as Glinda the good witch also stayed at Rockhaven. It seems Rockhaven was the precursor to all those Malibu rehab centers. The view sure is pretty.
And now, without further ado, let’s head inside Rockhaven Sanitarium:
Clothing left behind. Apparently they found fur coats and makeup too.
Two of the bathrooms. Every single one has a different color scheme with matching wallpaper and tile.
It’s important to wash your hands, ladies:
The ladies’ names are still in the closets:
The hallways are pink, SUPER PINK.
There’s wallpaper everywhere.
Rockhaven is currently owned by the city of Glendale and is in a state of disrepair. The Friends of Rockhaven, a non profit organization have been maintaining it as best they can and are lobbying to have Rockhaven added to the historic register due to its place in feminist history. Its fate is uncertain but I can say it would be a huge tragedy for it to be demolished and replaced with condos or a shopping mall which is precisely what the The Friends of Rockhaven fear will happen. I personally would love to see an investor with a love for historical detail buy it and turn it into a spa or a hotel.
I think this fountain is a great symbol of the work Agnes did at Rockhaven.
Rockhaven is rumored to have its fair share of ghosts and I think that’s a selling point honestly. What’s interesting about the stories is that they aren’t menacing but rather conjure up images of women who wish to return to a place where they found sanctuary. If you’d like to learn more about Rockhaven, check out this documentary. There’s also a coffee table book of photos coming out by writer Emily Lanigan and photographer Jason House. You can see some of those photos in this eloquent article by Sezin Koehler.
Last, here is the memorial rose garden, each rose bush has a plaque: