The gate at Rockhaven, by Mary Mallory
Hiding in plain sight and sitting in a state of arrested decay at 2713 Honolulu Ave. in Montrose, the historic Rockhaven Sanitarium stands as the only living example of Glendale’s and the Crescenta Valley’s long history of providing rest and rehabilitation sanitariums for the whole United States. Rockhaven also exists as the only female conceived and operated facility functioning solely for the benefit of women. Now threatened, the site’s fascinating background deserves rehabilitation as both park and center documenting the area’s history.
Glendale and the Crescenta Valley gained fame and prosperity as one of the United States’ first “health resorts,” catering to middle and upper class citizens looking for a peaceful haven to rest and recuperate from illnesses in the pure, dry air and beauty of the area, with more than twenty eventually operating in the community. Many served strictly as rehabilitation facilities after surgeries or sickness, while others served tuberculosis/consumption, alcoholism, and mental illnesses. One of the most famous was the 75-room Glendale Hotel, purchased by the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Co. in 1905 and converted into recuperation center providing rest cures in the sunny, dry climate of the lovely Verdugos, from ads in the 1905 Los Angeles Herald.
“Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays” by Karie Bible and Mary Mallory is available at Amazon and at local bookstores.
Unlike the rest of these, Rockhaven served only women, providing a “secluded sanctuary” where women received individualized, dignified care in a homelike setting,” per the Friends at Rockhaven brochure. It was established in 1923 by nurse Agnes Richards, who hoped to provide women with more humane and actually healing treatment away from the prison-like state institutions.
Raised in Nebraska, Richards worked in asylums and hospitals most of her life, seeing the degrading and inhumane treatment of patients, with little to no thought given to actually curing or healing them. Many women had no mental conditions, but were institutionalized by families after seeking divorces, beginning same-sex relationships, suffering from menopause, and the like. The madness surrounding them often brought on mental conditions.
After working in San Bernardino’s Patton Hospital and serving as the Superintendent of Los Angeles County Hospital, Richards decided to open her own female- only facility, “a mental and nervous sanitarium for women,” purchasing a small stone house in Verdugo City in 1923 to serve her first six residents. Unlike these other institutions, Richards offered a home-like retreat giving dignity, respect, and compassionate care to patients.
Those seeking treatment were called “residents” and required to be ambulatory in order to attend meals in the dining hall and enjoy the beauty of the grounds. The women wore dresses and makeup, brightening their attitudes and aiding recovery. The facility celebrated holidays, birthdays, and special events, provided art therapy, treatment, and visits by the local community. The women also attended events in the area.
As Rockhaven expanded, Richards purchased nearby homes to create a compound. She bought a small Craftsman-like residence bordering Pleasure Way, turning it around to face the complex and naming it Rose Cottage. Other small bungalows were added to the property, before Richards hired architects to design Spanish Revival buildings with elegant wrought iron, Malibu tile, and stylish arches. Each of the buildings received homey names like The Willows, The Pines, and the like.
The grounds resembled that of a private retreat or home, with winding paths connecting buildings, gardens, and outdoor patios and decorated with statues, plaques, and fountains, with views of the beautiful oaks and Verdugo Mountains. The main fountain featuring a nude woman sunbathing, was created by the Gladding McBean Company, suggesting rebirth through rest and sun.
Richards advertised in local newspapers, like the March 22, 1935 ad in the San Marino Tribune, calling Rockhaven “one of the most attractive and comfortable private homes in Southern California for persons suffering from mild mental disorders and general invalidism…”
The facility served many in the entertainment community, including Billie Burke, the Good Witch in “The Wizard of Oz,” Babe Egan, founder of the all-girl band, Babe Egan and Her Hollywood Redheads, Ziegfeld Girl Peggy Fears, Marin Statler of Statler and Rose, Joseph, Josephine Dillon, Clark Gable’s first wife, the mother of entertainer Spike Jones, as well as Marilyn Monroe’s mother, Gladys Baker Eley, who resided at Rockhaven for over 14 years. Other residents included script girls, actresses, church organists, composers, and artists.
After Richards retired, her granddaughter Patricia Traviss took over, continuing the tradition of her grandmother while also opening a hospitalhosptial for those becoming older and more forgetful from diseases like Alzheimer’s. She also employed Ivan Cole in 1963 to sculpt living gardens blazing with color, for which he and the property were recognized by Los Angeles and Glendale in the 1960s.
Traviss sold Rockhaven to the Ararat Company in 2001 who operated it as a facility for Alzheimer’s and long term care patients until 2006, when they sold to developers who planned to demolish the site and build condos. The City of Glendale purchased it in 2008 for over $8 million, with City Councilman John Drayman speaking of plans to use the site as a new home for the library as well as park and possible museum.
A cottage at Rockhaven, photograph by Mary Mallory.
No funds were ever appropriated for this cause however, and after the recession the City put the 3.3 acre site on the market for development. Several proposals suggested demolition for large scale projects, thus destroying all trace of this little known history. The City has allocated no funds to rehabilitate or open the facility, allowing it to sit in a state of “arrested decay.”
The Friends of Rockhaven, working with the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley, rallied to save the peaceful site as a possible community park and museum beginning in 2014. They spread the word on Rockhaven’s history via tours and stories in the Los Angeles Times, L.A. Weekly, the Atlantic, and KPCC’s “Off-Ramp,” while meeting monthly to clean the facility. They also began the process of obtaining state and national recognition for the history of the site.
Rockhaven was added to the state register of historic places by the California State Historical Resources Commission on April 20, 2016, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in June, giving it more protection from demolition.
The city of Glendale has received offers from developers regarding the site and will probably make a decision on Rockhaven’s future by the end of the year. A win-win for everyone involved would see rehabilitation and adaptive reuse recognizing the important history not only of the site, but of all the sanitariums that brought fame to Glendale.
Rockhaven offered a place of serenity and rest for its residents, let’s hope it finds its own rehabilitation and peace as well.