Rockhaven Sanitarium is finally on the brink of a redevelopment plan intent on retaining its historic character.
By: Donna Lugo Photos by: Paul Mowry
Drive down Honolulu Avenue in the tranquil, hilly region that is the Crescenta Valley and eventually you will encounter a dusty yet truly rare and historic nugget of California gold. The Rockhaven Sanitarium may at first glance look like the quintessential setting of a late ‘70s horror flick, but once you look beyond the cobwebs and chipped paint, the landscape reveals itself to be nothing short of remarkable. With its quaint gardens, abundance of oak trees and distinct architecture, it feels more like a park rather than a former mental institution.
Founded in 1923 by Agnes Richards, a former mental health nurse in Illinois and California. Richards created Rockhaven as a picturesque alternative to the barbaric treatment patients received in other facilities at the time. She wanted it to be a place for “dignified, individualized care in a home-like setting”—a concept otherwise known as “cottage therapy” that was first developed in Europe. The site has numerous distinctions that make it worthy of note. For instance, it was the first sanitarium run by women exclusively for women who were there for various mental health issues or even for just a brief period of rest and relaxation for those suffering from nervous exhaustion.
It was known for treating scads of notable celebrity residents like silent film star Billie Burke (Glenda ‘the Good Witch of the West” in the Wizard of Oz) and Marilyn Monroe’s mother, Gladys Pearl Eley Baker, who as legend has it, months after her famous daughter died, famously tried to make a break for it one night by shimming out a first story window with some tied up bed sheets, an act that made the headlines at the time.
Instead of shutting away its patients like pariahs, Rockhaven’s unique approach was to openly welcome their families to numerous events held on the grounds, thereby further lifting the social stigma against women and mental health conditions. Rockhaven was fully operational until 2006 when the 3.4-acre property was purchased by the City of Glendale two years later, originally intending it to be a place of community use like a park or library. However, ideas for what to do with it exactly, stalled due to a lack of cohesion from the community and a slow economic recovery. The space remained all but empty except for caretakers who tended the gardens and of course, the Friends of Rockhaven.
Lifetime Crescenta Valley resident, Joanna Linkchorst, is a founding member and current president of the Friends of Rockhaven coalition. When speaking about Rockhaven, Linkchorst lets out a contemplative sigh. “It just takes your heart. We call it the oasis. When things are really rough—just getting inside there, it is transforming,” says Linkchorst.
Started in 2013, the Friends of Rockhaven (FoR) have made certain that Rockhaven remains in the public eye thanks in part to community outreach like their monthly-guided public tours and with events such as a Mother’s Day tea that generates donations and renewed interest in the site. They are also responsible for submitting Rockhaven for nomination on National Register of Historic Places list. In 2016, it made the list on the California Register of Historical Resources.
By February 2016, still not knowing what exactly to do with the land, the city opened it up to the development community and began accepting bids. Some proposals included turning the space into a medical office, a ritzy hotel, or housing. Ultimately, they chose the one that would allow the city to retain the most control over the property and keep most of the historical structure intact. The selected proposal, from local developers, Gangi Architects, would convert 14-15 cottages into service and entertainment oriented spaces like art galleries, studios, and places to eat in addition to a small park. There would also be a few rooms reserved for a Friends of Rockhaven museum.
Brothers Mark and Matt Gangi, both longtime residents of the area, were initially drawn to Rockhaven because of its openness and historical merit. Matt, the lead architect on the project, had done extensive outreach meeting with the community and worked closely with Linkchorst and the FoR to establish what would be the best fit for the land. This close attention to stakeholder concerns is what they believe principally contributed to their proposal being selected.
The Theodore Payne Foundation, a nearby retail nursery that specializes in seeds for a variety of native California plants, is in talks to set up a seed shop on site, potentially offering gardening demonstrations as well. Kirk Gelsinger, of Montrose specialty food store, Gelsinger’s Amber Road, is interested in building a farm to table style restaurant on the grounds. Open areas will include an event space for outdoor concerts, plays, or even weddings. There is also talk of a teahouse, winery, and small studio spaces for artists to work or give art lessons and workshops.
While much remains in the preliminary stages of development, Mark Gangi is considering the idea of working in phases. With extensive water damage to some of the cottages’ roofs and doors, for now, the Gangis say they are mostly focused on bringing those parts of the property up to code and making it more accessible to people with disabilities, a process that Gangi tentatively puts into the 2-3 year range in terms of a date of completion. “We have to clear a couple of hurdles first. Right now, because there are areas that are still deemed unsafe; mostly tripping hazards. Also, we are looking for a parking structure so the space can open without affecting the local residents,” says Mark Gangi.“But, on the other hand, it’s already here. It’s already built, so it’s not so far off as it might be with a different project.”
Clearly great changes are in store for this former sanitarium. Thanks to the Friends of Rockhaven, and some enlightened development plans, it remains clear that the indelible spirit and fascinating legacy that makes Rockhaven such a unique place will remain.