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The Feminist Asylum

On a shaded lot in a quiet residential enclave in the La Crescenta valley sits a collection of Spanish Colonial cottages. These days, the only people who set foot on the Glendale, California, property are the caretakers who tend the peacefully empty grounds, and the groups of visitors who come through on guided tours. But for much of the 20th century, the lot was home to the Rockhaven sanitarium—a feminist institution for mentally ill women, founded as an antidote to the prison-like atmospheres of the asylums of the time.

In the 1920s, when Rockhaven was founded, running a sanitarium was a lucrative business. Scores of sanitariums had popped up around La Cescenta, modeled after the French sanitarium movement; any home could be transformed into an asylum for people with mild mental illness, the homeowners collecting money from wealthy patients as they prescribed them sunshine and dry air.

In practice, though, many of these institutions treated their patients as poorly as the notorious public asylums of the time—there were no laws governing their operations, leaving the residents of these sanitariums with few legal protections. Some homeowners threw up vaulted tents on their property in order to cram in more patients. In one of the more well-known cases, a La Crescenta sanitarium called Kimball held the actress Frances Farmer against her will after she declared herself to be a communist and an atheist, diagnosed her with paranoid schizophrenia, and treated her with electroshock therapy and insulin.

Patients at the state-run asylums of the time generally fared far worse—and the growing fascination with eugenics meant that many of them were also forcibly sterilized.

Rockhaven was different. It was founded in 1923 by the former nurse Agnes Richards, who had spent much of her career working in asylums in California. Determined to create a kinder, gentler alternative to the abuses she had witnessed, Richards used a thousand dollars she’d saved to purchase a small found-rock cottage on a lush, tree-lined estate in an area that was then called Verdugo City. Within a year, Richards had 24 “ladies”—never called “patients”—and was expanding the estate rapidly.

A place like Rockhaven—one run by and for women—was especially significant at a time when new and dangerous ideas about women’s sanity were taking hold. —
April Wolfe is a writer and filmmaker in based in Los Angeles.

Richards ran Rockhaven until 1967 when she passed it on to her granddaughter Patricia Traviss. In Traviss' time, Rockhaven changed with the needs of its residents and became popular for the care of the elderly women with dementia.

In 2001 Traviss sold Rockhaven to a large hospital corporation. However, by 2006 they found the upkeep too costly and sold it to developers who planned to scrape the lot and build condos. The community stepped in to stop the demolition and the City of Glendale purchased Rockhaven with the intent to open the property to the public for use as a community park.

However, because of the downturn of the economy, in the years since the purchase, the City of Glendale has allocated no funds to rehabilitate or open Rockhaven, and the property sits empty.

"Today, Rockhaven is on a list of surplus property, and the danger of losing this remarkable landmark and charming facility is very real. It is a public property, a public park…but the gates are closed. It looms, ghost-like, just out of view." — Corina Roberts- Nonprofit

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