Saving L.A.'s Last Standing Sanitarium, Where Feminists Got Rid of Inhumane Cells (VIDEO)

There was that time when Mike Lawler found a mound of crumbling pills on top of a chest of drawers, remnants of medicine a patient had been stashing instead of taking. "I felt somebody walk up behind me," Lawler says. "And there was an overwhelming feeling of anger in the room, like I had just discovered something that was not meant to be seen."

Then one day, after the garage had been cleared and locked, a piano previously seen only in old photographs reappeared in the middle of the garage floor.  

The rose bushes are lined with wooden placards commemorating residents who died at Rockhaven Sanitarium before it closed nine years ago. Caretakers know that they're not exactly living alone on the almost 100-year-old property, L.A.'s last standing sanitarium, tucked away in the hilly community of Montrose above Glendale.

Its 3.5 acres are dotted with 15 buildings named as if from a novel — the Willows, the Rose Cottage. The buildings, a mix of Craftsman and Spanish Colonial Revival styles on a boulevard that runs through the heart of town, sit in a state of arrested decay. Evoking an abandoned neighborhood of yesteryear, the property has proved ideal for occasional use as a K9 training site by law enforcement agencies.

Beyond its ornate entry gate and picturesque transom windows sit the sanitarium's largely untouched rooms — the walls of the dining room, sitting rooms and bedrooms still lined in peeling floral wallpaper, sofa sets neatly arranged, Murphy beds at the ready. Family photos lie on a table; a dressy coat hangs abandoned.

A pristine parlor at Rockhaven Sanitarium seems recently vacated. Preservations want to save this key site of California women's history.
A pristine parlor at Rockhaven Sanitarium seems recently vacated. Preservations want to save this key site of California women's history.
By Shannon Cottrell

Rockhaven Sanitarium opened in 1923, thanks to Agnes Richards, a courageous early feminist who rejected the horrors of that era applied in the name of mental health "care" for troubled women. Rockhaven housed notables such as Marilyn Monroe's mother and actress Billie Burke, best known as Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz. Richards and her staff were pioneers, providing dignified care at a time when the nightmare of institutionalization was in full force. 

Now a dedicated group of residents is trying to save this important part of California history, after a preservation plan by the city of Glendale fell apart and developers began proposing development on the city-owned property.

Lawler, who was raised by a single mother and has four daughters, sees Rockhaven as a monument to women's dignity, a mental health industry game-changer that must be saved.

"Rockhaven in particular is kind of a repository of stories, a repository of lost personalities, of lost women that led these huge lives and just drifted away," he says. The challenge, he says, is, "We're trying to grab onto them as we're drifting away."

He belongs to Friends of Rockhaven, whose president, Joanna Linkchorst, wants to ensure the site is preserved as a public space. Her love affair with the sanitarium began on her first visit.

"There was something so special and unique about this place, even though by the time I was there it was overgrown," Linkchorst says. "Much of it was brown and everything was dead, but it was still beautiful to me. It was still remarkable."

The duo has led tours through the sanitarium, a sprawling and serene complex that housed around 125 residents at its peak and is, they say, one of the most endangered historic spaces in the Los Angeles area.

Women at pioneering Rockhaven Sanitarium, which abhorred the locked cells of the early 20th Century, were treated with dignity.EXPAND
Women at pioneering Rockhaven Sanitarium, which abhorred the locked cells of the early 20th Century, were treated with dignity.
By Shannon Cottrell

In a bid to save the facility, in 2008 Glendale bought the property for $8.25 million from Ararat Home of Los Angeles. But now, city officials sound almost tongue-twisted about its status.

"We do not have the ability to go and either try to realize what was kind of nebulously described and envisioned for that site, but at the same time we can't simply divest in the property because of the expectations of a number of the stakeholders have," says Glendale city manager Scott Ochoa. "So we're in this position where we're floating somewhere between the ceiling and the floor."

Former Glendale city councilman John Drayman led the city effort to preserve Rockhaven as a historic park or library, saving it from demolition. But no funds were appropriated beyond the acquisition price, Ochoa says. After the recession, the idea of reviving the site fizzled, and so did Drayman's influence — he was convicted last year of embezzlement, perjury and filing false tax returns.

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"Rockhaven lost all momentum," Ochoa says.

Last year, Glendale invited developers to submit ideas for "adaptively reusing" the property. Their plans ranged from creating housing for female veterans, to an all-girls' school, to condos. But the city halted the process after Friends of Rockhaven criticized the developers' plans as compromising the site's architecture and Rockhaven's unique historic legacy.

Now Friends of Rockhaven is seeking ways to save it as a public space without the city. Linkchorst spends her weekends at the sanitarium doing volunteer maintenance work, and even dreams about Rockhaven.

It feels as if the occupant may be right back for her things in this long-vacant bedroom at Rockhaven Sanitarium.
It feels as if the occupant may be right back for her things in this long-vacant bedroom at Rockhaven Sanitarium.
By Shannon Cottrell

She deeply admires its nearly century-old emphasis on dignity for women. "It wasn't like you were trapped here — it was where you wanted to be," Linkchorst says. "Very strong women founded this place and it attracted very strong women to stay."

Linckhorst has joined forces with Lawler, former head of the Historical Society of Crescenta Valley and author of Murder and Mayhem in the Crescenta Valley, and an expert on the stories of the region. Lawler says the sanitarium's own story began in the 1920s when Richards came to the Crescenta Valley — then famed for having the healthiest air quality in the United States — with six patients and some chickens. Richards was bent on helping her charges escape cells in mental wards throughout California and the nation where women were commonly abused.

Rockhaven quickly earned the nickname the "Screen Actors Sanitarium" thanks to its famous clientele such as Burke; Broadway actress Peggy Fears; Babe Egan (front woman of Babe Egan's Hollywood Redheads); and Monroe's mother, Gladys Pearl Baker, who slipped away from Rockhaven several times while Marilyn paid $250 a month for her care.

At the end of the 1920s, when Richards wanted to expand her sanitarium, she was met with opposition from the community. One resident accused Richards of being unfit to run it. The flinty nurse sued the resident in a $100,000 slander case and won, although she was granted just $500 in personal damages.

The Friends of Rockhaven has organized as a nonprofit corporation to attempt to obtain California Historical Landmark status for Rockhaven. They're selling jewelry and T-shirts and throwing fundraising events, and plan to apply for grants to raise money to turn the property into a publicly accessible park.

"This land was purchased with the promise that it would be a park," Lawler says. "If [the city] won't create a park there, like they said they would, then we'll do it ourselves."

But with Rockhaven owned by Glendale, which spends about $50,000 a year to maintain the site, a number of bureaucratic issues stand in the way, and it's not clear what the group's next move should be. For now, the city has agreed to give them time to look for independent funding.

"We're certainly aware that it's there, and we're trying to find solutions for it — it's not something that anybody is going to forget about," says Glendale city councilmember Laura Friedman.

Rockhaven stands as a hopeful feminist symbol of humanity during inhumane times — one that may or may not survive the wrecking ball.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the sanitarium's location as La Crescenta.

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