The Visionary Behind Rockhaven: Agnes Richards
In 1923, psychiatric nurse Agnes Traviss Richards founded Rockhaven Sanitarium, a private mental health institution for women at 2713 Honolulu Avenue in Glendale, California.
Having witnessed the atrocities in state-run insane asylums across Nebraska, Iowa, and California, Richards aspired to create a peaceful, home-like setting for women with mild mental and nervous disorders.
Surrounded by gardens and lush landscaping, Rockhaven became one of the nation’s first women-owned and women-serving sanitariums, reflecting a small yet significant movement towards improving the conditions for mentally ill women in the early twentieth century.
The Cottage Plan of Asylum Architecture and Rockhaven’s Design
Rockhaven was inspired by the Cottage Plan of Asylum architecture principles for mental institutions, first developed in the late nineteenth century.
The plan called for numerous individual buildings within landscaped gardens to create a serene, home-like environment for residents. Rockhaven remains one of California’s best examples of an early twentieth-century private sanitarium that followed this architectural approach.
Craftsman-style Buildings and Spanish Colonial Revival Architecture
The Rockhaven Sanitarium Historic District spans 3.4 acres and is home to several vintage hospital wards and guest cottages. A total of fifteen buildings were constructed on the property between 1920 and 1972.
Agnes Richards acquired five Craftsman-style buildings and commissioned Prescott and Brothers to design additional structures in the Spanish Colonial Revival, famous in Southern California during the 1920s and 1930s.
The sanitarium’s patios and courtyards were extensions of the residents’ indoor living spaces, providing privacy and tranquility.
The landscaped gardens of Rockhaven played a vital role in creating a therapeutic environment for its residents. Lush greenery and well-tended gardens offered a serene setting for the women living there.
In addition, the landscape design was an integral part of the Cottage Plan of Asylum architecture, which aimed to provide a home-like atmosphere for patients.
Notable Residents of Rockhaven Sanitarium
Over time, Rockhaven Sanitarium gained a reputation as the “Screen Actors’ Sanitarium,” accommodating actresses and other individuals involved in the entertainment industry. Some of the most famous residents include:
- Gladys Pearl Baker, the mother of famed actress Marilyn Monroe, resided at Rockhaven from 1952 until 1966.
- Billie Burke, a renowned Broadway actress and film star most famous for portraying Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, was a long-term resident of Rockhaven.
- Peggy Fears, a Broadway actress, Ziegfeld Follies performer-turned-producer, and real estate financier, died at Rockhaven in August 1994.
Mental Health Treatment in the Early 20th Century
In the early twentieth century, we witnessed a shift in mental health treatment, with smaller, privately-run facilities established by women exclusively for women.
Instead of housing women in large public institutions under deplorable conditions, these private sanitariums like Rockhaven aimed to provide a more compassionate and dignified approach to care. Rockhaven is one of the three remaining women’s mental health facilities from this period in California.
Preservation Efforts and the Role of Friends of Rockhaven
After Agnes Richards died in 1967, her granddaughter Patricia Traviss took over the sanitarium’s management. In 2001, it was sold to a large hospital corporation, which later sold to developers planning to build condos on the property.
However, the community intervened to stop the demolition. In 2008, Rockhaven was purchased by the City of Glendale for approximately $8.25 million to transform the property into a public community park.
Various proposals for the site’s adaptive reuse emerged, including a mental health facility or a shopping center. However, in 2019, the City of Glendale ended its partnership with Gangi Development after a two-year collaboration.
In July 2021, the City received $8 million in state funds to transform the site into the Rockhaven Mental Health History Museum, thanks to the efforts of Senator Anthony Portantino (D – La Cañada Flintridge), who proposed the allocation.
Despite opposition from the City of Glendale, the Friends of Rockhaven nominated the sanitarium for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The California State Historical Resources Commission unanimously approved Rockhaven Sanitarium’s listing on the California Register of Historical Resources on April 18, 2016.
Friends of Rockhaven Kicked out of Rockhaven: The Struggle for Preservation
The organization played a crucial role in the site’s preservation and listing on the National Register of Historic Places, showcasing the importance of community involvement in preserving local history.
But their relationship with the City of Glendale has not always been smooth. In recent years, tensions escalated between the two parties, culminating in the Friends of Rockhaven filing a lawsuit against the City to force them to perform much-needed maintenance on the site.
The Lawsuit: Seeking Maintenance and Preservation
For the past 15 years, the Friends of Rockhaven allege that the City of Glendale has neglected the proper maintenance of Rockhaven’s historic buildings. The lawsuit demands the City address various issues, such as roof replacements, mold abatement, drainage, and painting. Although the Friends of Rockhaven are not seeking monetary compensation, they hope the lawsuit will push the City to take action to preserve this historic treasure.
The City’s Response: Banning Friends of Rockhaven
In what appears to be a retaliatory move, the City of Glendale has banned Friends of Rockhaven from the property and cut off all communication with them. The organization believes that the City’s anger stems from the embarrassment caused by the lawsuit, which has highlighted the City’s failure to maintain the historic site adequately.
Moving Forward: Hope for Reconciliation and Preservation
Despite the setbacks and ongoing tensions with the City of Glendale, the Friends of Rockhaven remain committed to preserving Rockhaven Sanitarium Historic District. They hope that once the City’s frustration subsides, they can resume their volunteer work at Rockhaven and continue their efforts to save this invaluable piece of history.
As Rockhaven celebrates its 100th birthday, the Friends of Rockhaven remain dedicated to preserving its legacy for future generations. Although controversial, their lawsuit is a testament to their unwavering commitment to protecting Rockhaven and advocating for its rightful place in the annals of mental health care history.