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The Site Of A Historic Glendale Sanitarium Will Become A Mental Health Museum

The front metal gate, made of vertical bars, of Rockhaven Sanitarium, with the word "Rockhaven" in an arch above the gate. A house is visible in the background through the gate's bars.
An undated photo of Rockhaven Sanitarium's front gate.
(Courtesy Friends of Rockhaven )
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The site of the former Rockhaven Sanitarium, a historic mental health facility in Glendale, is slated to become a museum thanks to $8 million in state funding.

Founded in the 1920s by psychiatric nurse Agnes Richards, Rockhaven was a mental health facility run by women, for women. Richards was also a pioneer of compassionate mental health care.

Joanna Linkchorst, founding member of Friends of Rockhaven, said her “head and heart exploded” on learning that the state will pay to create the museum. She’s been fighting for nearly a decade to ensure that the site — and Richards’ legacy — are preserved.

“We were kind of ramping down, thinking that the Friends of Rockhaven weren’t going to have any kind of future other than what we were able to save virtually on our website, and any opportunity that we would have to speak about the property,” Linkchorst said.

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Now, Linkchorst says there’s a lot of work to be done imagining what a museum will look like on the 3.5-acre property.

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)

Richards founded Rockhaven because she was appalled by the treatment of mental patients at the time, Linkchorst said. In the early 20th Century, “insane asylums” were the “atrocious sort of places that you see like in American Horror Story," Friends of Rockhaven member Emily Lanigan told LAist in 2015. "And so she really worked to create a place of serenity, of beautiful surroundings, where women were treated with dignity."

Richards built stand-alone 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.

The care at Rockhaven under Richards’ leadership was “dignified, respectful and individualized,” Linkchorst said. “It was so different than what was going on in the world at that time.”

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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.

A 1921 Gladding McBean statue called “Reclining Nude” that sits in the middle of the Rockhaven property
"The Lady of Rockhaven"
(Maya Sugarman / KPCC)

Linkchorst dubbed it “The Lady of Rockhaven” … "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," she said during a 2015 tour of the property.

Glinda — And Marilyn's Mom

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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.

The one-time appropriation of $8 million from the 2021-22 state budget will allow for the creation of the Rockhaven Mental Health History Museum.

State Sen. Anthony Portantino (D – La Cañada Flintridge), who proposed the funding, said in a press release: “Converting the Rockhaven grounds into a museum dedicated to the legacy of Agnes Richards, women’s history, and telling the story of compassionate care for women with mental health challenges ensures that we honor the historical significance of this site and the legacy of those who created it.”

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Robert Garrova is reporting on the intersection of mental health and law enforcement.