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By women, for women: History and California's drought collide at Rockhaven Sanitarium

Rockhaven Sanitarium
Rockhaven Sanitarium
Rockhaven Sanitarium
Rockhaven Sanitarium in Montrose first opened in 1923. The sanctuary and care facility was both run by women and for women.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Rockhaven Sanitarium
Rockhaven Sanitarium in Verdugo City was founded by Agnes Richards, a nurse who worked at two hospitals in Southern California. Richards didn't like how the hospitals treated mental health patients.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Rockhaven Sanitarium
Agnes Richards started the women's care facility from a small house with six patients on Honolulu Avenue in Montrose.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Rockhaven Sanitarium
A year after opening, the Rockhaven Sanitarium began attracting more residents and Agnes Richards needed to expand. She purchased the neighboring cottages that now make up the 3.5-acre facility.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Rockhaven Sanitarium
One of Rockhaven Sanitarium's most well known resident was Gladys Eley, Marilyn Monroe's mother. Eley briefly escaped from the facility using bed sheets through this small window in her closet.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Rockhaven Sanitarium
The decor remains intact inside the Oaks Cottage at Rockhaven Sanitarium on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. This cottage was built in 1939 as part of the complex. Each building is named after a different fauna.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Rockhaven Sanitarium
The Elms Cottage, also known as the Annex, now has roof leaks. Currently, the facility is in a state of decay. Friends of Rockhaven hope that one day soon the sanitarium can be restored.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Rockhaven Sanitarium
Rockhaven Sanitarium attracted many performers including Billy Burke, who played Glinda the Good Witch in the 1939 'Wizard of Oz.'
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Rockhaven Sanitarium
In 2008, the City of Glendale purchased the 3.5-acre Rockhaven Sanitarium. Friends of Rockhaven, a non-profit, hopes that the space will one day be renovated into a public library and park.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Rockhaven Sanitarium
This statue has come to be known as the Lady of Rockhaven. The terra cotta statue was made by Gladding McBean.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Behind the stone wall of the old Rockhaven Sanitarium in Montrose, engineer David Gould shows off one of the Crescenta Valley Water District’s latest projects: A well that will pull water from under an out-of-use women’s mental health facility that was opened in the 1920s.

(The water well on the old Rockhaven Sanitarium site) 

"It goes down 385 feet into the ground and produces groundwater from our local Verdugo basin," Gould explains. 

As part of a joint project with the City of Glendale, the Crescenta Valley Water District plans to tap an estimated 450 gallons of water per minute, which would supply about 1,200 homes a year.

The water is high in nitrates, so it will have to be treated at a nearby facility, and that requires the construction of an underground pipeline. In the past, water agencies might not have bothered to take such steps, but California's drought is changing that.

"Prior to the year 2000, there hadn’t been a well drilled in the Crescenta Valley since 1954," says Gould. "We are turning over rocks."

Gould says the plan is to have the Rockhaven well online and providing local water by the middle of October.

"We’re not taking imported water from the Colorado River or the state project, which is up in the Sacramento area," he says.

The project is getting assistance in the form of Prop 84 California drought relief funds. "Seventy-five percent of the cost of this project, or about $900,000, is being paid for by the state," he says.

So why aren’t more wells like this springing up? It’s because even though the water may be under ground, you need some space above ground in order to build the well.

"We’ve known that the water is here for a long time," Gould says. "The complications that come up is finding land. The Crescenta Valley is 99 percent built out."

Which makes the 3.5-acre Rockhaven Sanitarium site, purchased by the City of Glendale in 2008, more than just a patch of land with some historic buildings on it.

"This provided an opportunity for us, because this Rockhaven site has been kept in the state it’s had since 1929," Gould says.

So what happens to the sanitarium?

The group Friends of Rockhaven wants to see the site in Montrose preserved.

Built in the 1920s by Agnes Richards, Rockhaven was one of many facilities that sprouted up in the Crescenta Valley in order to provide a place of healing.

Being an abandoned sanitarium, the place now has its share of ghost stories, says docent Phaedra Walton. But Rockhaven wasn't exactly Arkham Asylum, either. Friends of Rockhaven founding member Joanna Linkchorst says if there are spirits haunting the buildings that were home to patients for so many years, they’re most likely happy ones.

(Rockhaven Sanitarium founder Agnes Richards) 

"[Richards] was absolutely appalled at the treatment of mental patients at the time," Linkchorst says.

After serving with the Red Cross during WWI, Richards ended up at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino. But she didn’t stay.

"The pictures of Patton State Hospital — it’s this big gothic-like castle and it would be incredibly intimidating to be in there, and Agnes decided that something needed to be different," says Linkchorst.

Instead of gothic dormitories, Richards built stand-alone cottages with names like The Willows and The Pines, while towering oak trees and meticulously landscaped rose gardens made Rockhaven a place where patients wanted to venture outdoors.

Linkchorst points to a statue that sits in the middle of the Rockhaven property that’s become a mascot for the place.

('The Lady of Rockhaven' Credit: Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

"This is a lady that we call The Lady of Rockhaven. It was a Gladding McBean statue that was designed in 1921 and named simply reclining nude," Linkchorst says. "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."

The groundbreaking style of care and beautiful surroundings at Rockhaven attracted Hollywood types too. Billie Burke — who played Glinda the Good Witch in "The Wizard of Oz" — was once a resident. So was Clark Gable’s first wife, Josephine Dillon. 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 says. "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."

(The closet window through which Gladys escaped Rockhaven. Credit: Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

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 reveals some of the forgotten items she’s hoping to archive: souvenir photos, fur coats, hatboxes full of cards.

(A Paris Inn souvenir card left behind by a former Rockhaven resident. Credit: Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

"Agnes came from a background of running statewide insane asylums that are kind of the true atrocious sort of places that you see like in American Horror Story," says Emily Lanigan, who is also with the Friends of Rockhaven. "And so she really worked to created a place of serenity, of beautiful surroundings, where women were treated with dignity."

But Lanigan thinks Rockhaven should be remembered not just for its serenity but for its pioneering founder.

"This was a woman-run facility. It was run by women, it was for women. And this was in 1923," says Lanigan. "And this was a time when a woman-owned business in general was kind of a rarity. But especially a woman-owned medical facility. A health facility? A mental health facility? That was unheard of."

It’s not clear yet what the City of Glendale will do with the sanitarium land. But Linkchorst hopes Rockhaven will one day be reopened as a respite for all.

"The Friends of Rockhaven are working with the city and we are hoping one day to be able to open this up to the public as a historic park," Linkchorst says. "We hope to be able to have a museum for the Crescenta Valley in here. And just park space where people can come and rest and recover just as they have been able for almost a century."