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This Historic Sanitarium For Women Once Hosted Hollywood Stars. A Preservationist Group Fears Its Decay

A black and white photo depicts the gates of Rockhaven Sanitarium. The gates are wrought iron and the name of the institution is spelled out in capital letters in an arc above the gates, with low stone walls on either side.
An undated photo of Rockhaven Sanitarium's front gate.
(Courtesy Friends of Rockhaven)
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When it opened its doors in Glendale in the 1920s, Rockhaven was a groundbreaking mental health facility, run by women, for women.

Agnes Richards, a psychiatric nurse who founded Rockhaven, was a pioneer of compassionate mental health care. Over the years, the facility cared for several Hollywood luminaries — including Billie Burke and Marilyn Monroe's mother. But by the early 2000s, Rockhaven shut its doors.

From celebrated facility to plans for a mental health museum

The Rockhaven site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2016 “as one of the best extant examples of an early twentieth century woman-owned, women-serving private sanitarium in the State.”

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By then Glendale had bought the historic property for some $8 million. In 2021, State Sen. Anthony Portantino, who represents La Cañada Flintridge, secured $8 million to turn the roughly 3.5-acre property into a mental health museum.

Now a nonprofit preservationist group has filed a lawsuit against the city of Glendale, alleging the city has allowed the historic property to fall into decay.

The suit filed this month by Friends of Rockhaven alleges that the buildings are in “deplorable” condition due to city mismanagement.

Rockhaven Sanitarium (via Facebook)
Rockhaven Sanitarium.
(via Facebook)

“The City’s neglect caused deterioration, dilapidation and decay to public property and will cost taxpayers more than if the City had performed its duty to protect the property as far back as 2008 when it was acquired,” the filing states.

A history of dignified treatment

Richards founded Rockhaven Sanitarium back in 1923 because she was appalled by the treatment of mental health patients at the time.

In the early 20th Century, “insane asylums” were the “atrocious sort of places that you see like in American Horror Story," Emily Lanigan, a member of Friends of Rockhaven, told LAist in 2015.

She said of Richards legacy: "And so she really worked to create a place of serenity, of beautiful surroundings, where women were treated with dignity."

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Richards built standalone cottages with names such as The Willows and The Pines at Rockhaven. Towering oak trees and meticulously landscaped rose gardens made it a place where patients wanted to venture outdoors.

An undated photo of Rockhaven Sanitarium founder Agnes Richards standing in the Sanitarium's garden. She is wearing a white dress with a bib over a blouse. She has what appears to be a type of nurse's cap on her head.
Rockhaven Sanitarium founder Agnes Richards.
(Courtesy Friends of Rockhaven)

The care at Rockhaven under Richards’ leadership was “dignified, respectful and individualized,” said Joanna Linkchorst, president and co-founder of Friends of Rockhaven.

“It was so different than what was going on in the world at that time. Rockhaven provided an opportunity to get truly treated, not just drugged and locked away,” she said.

There’s a 1921 Gladding McBean statue called “Reclining Nude” in the middle of the Rockhaven property that’s become a mascot for the place. Linkchorst dubbed it “The Lady of Rockhaven."

During a 2015 tour of the property, Linkchorst described the statue:

"The way that she’s drinking in the sun and looking up and that beautiful faint smile gives you the feeling that you feel here: This is a place to relax and breathe and recover and become yourself again."
A 1921 Gladding McBean statue called “Reclining Nude” that sits in the middle of the Rockhaven property .
The Lady of Rockhaven.
(Maya Sugarman / KPCC)

A safe place for Glinda — and Marilyn's mom

The groundbreaking approach to mental health care and the beautiful surroundings attracted Hollywood types. Billie Burke — who played Glinda the Good Witch in "The Wizard of Oz" — was once a resident. And then there was Gladys — Marilyn Monroe’s mom.

"Gladys felt the need to wander. She is our most infamous resident. And there were a couple of times that she attempted to escape," Linkchorst said. "She managed to get out a couple of times. One of them, she tied her bedsheets together and made a dramatic escape through a tiny window in her closet."

But most Rockhaven patients were in no hurry to leave. Some women stayed until their deaths, leaving behind their most treasured belongings. On the second floor of The Willows cottage, Linkchorst pointed out some of the forgotten items she’s hoping to archive: souvenir photos, fur coats, hatboxes full of cards.

Where things stand today

Rubble can be seen on the floor of The Pines cottage, one of the historic buildings on the Rockhaven site. There are also holes in the ceiling.
Some of the damage inside The Pines cottage on the Rockhaven site.
(Courtesy Joanna Linkchorst)

Linkchorst says progress has been slow. She said the city has been negligent in its duty to preserve the property, which includes several standalone cottages set among oak trees.

In one structure built in 1921 called The Coulter, Linkchorst said the ceiling is sagging and there is substantial water damage.

“There was so much water in this building at one time that there was condensation on the insides of the windows,” Linkchorst said.

The Friends of Rockhaven want the city to repair the roofs of the buildings on the property, which were hard hit during all the storms earlier this year. The group wants the city to address mold on the property, as well as other maintenance measures.

Linkchorst said the city’s efforts to put tarps on the roofs of the buildings to prevent further damage have been unsuccessful.

A blue tarp hangs over one of the structures at the historic Rockhaven site. The tarp is tattered and frayed.
A blue tarp hangs over one of the structures at the historic Rockhaven site.
(Courtesy Joanna Linkchorst)

Glendale City Attorney Michael Garcia said in an email that the city was unable to provide comment at this time.

Linkchorst said her group felt compelled to file the suit.

“I feel like this is something that we sadly needed to do," she said, "and that it will finally start pushing things forward to make it so we will get the place open.”

What questions do you have about mental health in SoCal?
One of my goals on the mental health beat is to make the seemingly intractable mental health care system more navigable.

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