Flowers and All: Rockhaven Sanitarium and Women’s Mental Health
By Tiffany HearseySeptember 15, 2016
Rockhaven was founded as a sanitarium exclusively for women. It opened in 1923, just three years after women won the right to vote. It pioneered a holistic approach to mental illness through art and occupational therapy, as well as social activities and outings. While other sanitariums were places of strict confinement, the women at Rockhaven were encouraged to be social with one another and to keep their ties with the outside world. The residents were taken out on shopping trips and even sold the crafts they made to the public on the sanitarium’s grounds. Of course, Rockhaven was still an institution of its time: some patients were subjected to electroshock therapy.
Rockhaven was erected in Montrose, California, in what used to be part of Crescenta Valley, roughly 15 miles from Downtown Los Angeles. It became known as the “Screen Actor’s Sanitarium,” since it boasted several famous — and infamous — residents, including Marilyn Monroe’s mother, Gladys Pearl Baker, who launched repeated escape attempts; Billie Burke, who played Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz (1939); and Peggy Fears, a former Ziegfeld Girl and Broadway producer. Many other residents were pioneers in their fields: doctors, professional musicians, as well as veterans of the World War II–era Women Airforce Service Pilots program (WASP).
The buildings of Rockhaven reflected the eclectic style of 1920s and ’30s Los Angeles architecture; some of the houses on the three-and-a-half acres of land are Craftsman, some Spanish Colonial Revival. All have porches and big windows to let in plenty of sunlight and air. They were designed to offer the residents home-like settings and encourage outdoor recreation amid the estate’s massive oak trees.
The sanitarium was founded by a psychiatric nurse named Agnes Richards. Born in the United States but raised and educated in Germany by her grandparents, Richards served for the Red Cross during World War I and returned to the United States to earn her undergraduate degree in psychology and complete nursing school. Working in various hospitals and mental institutions, Richards was appalled by the barbarous treatment of women patients. Many were subjected to confinement and isolation, shackled and forced to undergo harmful and humiliating “cures.”
Women were particularly vulnerable, as they could be institutionalized for anxiety and mild or postpartum depression, or even menopause. They could also be institutionalized for challenging male authority. Just a few years after Rockhaven opened, Los Angeles’s notorious Wineville Chicken Coop Murders (1926–1928) — dramatized in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling (2008) — showed that women could be silenced by being labeled “insane.” Soon after single mother Christine Collins reported that her nine-year-old son had gone missing, the LAPD claimed to have located the missing boy. Collins, however, protested that the child was not hers, even providing dental records as proof. Feeling the heat for other unsolved crimes and wanting to close the case, the LAPD had Collins committed to a mental asylum for refusing the child. Collins was ultimately released, and it was revealed that the child that had been forced on her was in fact a runaway from Iowa. Her own child, many speculate, had been murdered by the Chicken Coop serial killer. Collins spent the rest of her life searching for the boy.
This climate of fear and mistreatment inspired Agnes Richards to provide a space where women who needed help would be treated with dignity, and where they could steer the course of their own healing through self-exploration and engagement with others.
Today Rockhaven sits empty, under lock and key. Prior to its closure, the sanitarium changed hands many times. Agnes Richards ran it until the late 1960s, when it was taken over by her granddaughter Patricia Traviss. Traviss sold the property to a hospital corporation in 2001. But the upkeep of the grounds was too costly, and the property was then sold to housing developers. The city of Glendale then stepped in and purchased the property in 2008, to protect it from being razed, but has done nothing with it. Presently, however, the city is looking at proposals to sell the property and have it turned into a boutique shopping center or mental health facility, or to retain it, save the buildings, and convert part of the land into a park.
In the meantime, Rockhaven is in a state of arrested decay, a time capsule with 1930s tiles, built-in furniture, and even Murphy beds. Bedrooms are still filled with belongings of former residents: faded black-and-white photographs, rosaries, and slips and blouses that look as if they’ve been plucked from a Bette Davis movie set.
The grounds, once known for their manicured lawns and gardens, have gone to seed after the retirement of groundskeeper Ivan Cole in 1997. Cole had worked at Rockhaven for 34 years, beginning in 1963. His efforts had once won Rockhaven both the Glendale Beautiful Award and the Los Angeles Beautiful Community Award. He shared his love of gardening with the patients through his Garden Club classes.
Cole, who died in 2011, is fondly remembered by Roberta, his wife of 53 years. “He was,” she recalls, particularly “enthralled by oaks, but he loved all plant life.” He wanted Rockhaven to be open to the public. Shortly after Glendale purchased the property in 2008, he addressed its City Council, saying, “I had great pride and commitment to maintain the beautiful grounds which helped bring an esthetic and tranquil environment to the residents [and] look forward to seeing this beautiful space used to its maximum potential.”
Joanna Linkchorst has been advocating just that. She is the president of Friends of Rockhaven, a nonprofit that leads monthly tours of the site, in order to educate the public about the sanitarium’s history and to help keep up the grounds. This year, she led the successful effort to put Rockhaven on both the California Register of Historical Resources and the National Register of Historic Places, although this does not protect the property. She wants to see Rockhaven open to the public as a community center, a museum of mental health and local history, and a park. “We thought this was going to be saved,” she says, shaking her head at the fact that the City of Glendale has reneged on it original plans to preserve the site. “What this represents,” she says, “is Crescenta Valley history, Los Angeles history,” and then adds, with emphasis, “women’s history.”
Earlier this year I attended one of Linkchorst’s tours, accompanied by students from UC San Diego. Toward the end, graduate student Carrie Streeter observed, “When you look at a lot of mental health institutions that are abandoned, and the ones that survive as museums and public sites — they have to market themselves as the ghost tour. It continues the stigmatization of mental illness.” For Streeter as for Linkchorst, Rockhaven stands at the intersection of many important narratives: “It’s a story about feminism, it’s a story about Hollywood, it’s a story of a lot of things.”
Rockhaven’s history also holds lessons for today, particularly in the staff’s promotion of self-exploration through art and recreation, and in its attempts to foster a communal atmosphere. This approach contrasts sharply with our present-day culture of over-medication. In her recent New York Times article “Medicating Women’s Feelings,” psychiatrist Julie Holland argues that the medical establishment too often regards women’s natural emotional responses as symptoms of disease. “At least one in four women in America,” she writes, “now takes a psychiatric medication, compared with one in seven men.” Although Holland acknowledges that medication is important for some mental disorders, she suggests that “what we need is more empathy, compassion, receptivity, emotionality and vulnerability, not less. We need to stop labeling our sadness and anxiety as uncomfortable symptoms, and to appreciate them as a healthy, adaptive part of our biology.”
Rockhaven is a counter-model to this “fix-it” culture. To walk its grounds and hear its patients’ stories is to be reminded of the value of community and self-exploration, and to acknowledge the fact that natural emotional responses like sadness and anxiety are in fact essential for emotional growth.
During my interview with Roberta Cole, she showed me a “thank you” card that Ivan once received from a resident who had attended his Garden Club. The woman was not only personally grateful to Ivan, but also expressed the hope that others, too, would appreciate what Rockhaven had given them:
The Ladies look forward to Garden Club. We Ladies don’t know how important Trees are to our health. Rockhaven really has everything.
We only hope all appreciate, flowers and all.
Historical records and documents used in this article were provided by The Friends of Rockhaven and Roberta Cole.
Read more LARB pieces related to mental health and illness here.
Tiffany Hearsey is a freelance writer and photographer.
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