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The Feminist Asylum That Redefined Women's Mental-Health Treatment

Updated: Mar 22, 2019

When it opened in the 1920s, California’s Rockhaven sanitarium took a radically different approach than the other institutions of its time.

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 Crescenta, 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.

APRIL WOLFE | NOV 23, 2015

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Why couldn’t this still be a beautiful respite….a place for sad and lonely women to have a cottage-care retreat, to stay where they can get comfort and relaxation in a period in their lives when then need help and companionoship, Good care, dining, art classes, and a spa could offer a healthful retreat to rest and rejoice to regain personal strength

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