First published in the Nov. 6 print issue of the Glendale News Press.
Glendale officials are once again mulling what to do with the Rockhaven Sanitarium property, more than a dozen years after the city acquired the historic site and tried thrice to develop it.
This time around, they have $8 million in state funding to help grease the wheel, a grant secured in June by state Sen. Anthony Portantino during Sacramento’s budgeting process. Though there is a catch that whatever happens on the property must include a museum, the city is otherwise free to explore other uses for the site’s buildings and park-like space.
“For that, we are grateful,” City Manager Roubik Golanian said, addressing the funding at a City Council meeting in October. “This grant has the potential to kickstart our future efforts to preserve this important property and for the Council to consider alternatives that may not have been feasible in the past.”
The city purchased the 3.4-acre property, a registered historic landmark, which includes 15 buildings occupying around 22,000 square feet, in 2008 for $8.25 million.
Rockhaven was founded in 1923 as an alternative to the infamously brutal conditions of other mental asylums of the time. Its founder, nurse Agnes Richards, pioneered a cottage-style approach to the institution, which complemented the “kinder, gentler alternative to the abuses she had witnessed” in other such places, according to the Friends of Rockhaven nonprofit.
“This is one of just a handful left in the country — I believe three, if I’m not mistaken,” Bradley Calvert, the assistant director of community development, told the council. “It’s a very significant location and significant property.”
Portantino, a La Cañada Flintridge Democrat whose office is in Glendale, told the council he hoped to give them the resources to make the best decision for Rockhaven — sometimes called “the feminist asylum,” for its dedicated mental health treatment of women. The museum component, he added, is necessary to enlighten future generations about Richards’ work.
“I just appreciate how much effort that your staff and you have all put in over the years to preserve this jewel of the foothills and this important piece of history, in particular with women’s health,” he told the council. “As we know, the founder was a hundred years ahead of her time and that should be preserved and appreciated for generations.”
In the past six years, the city has made three attempts to revamp the property — it dropped an exploration of housing development, terminated an agreement to develop a boutique retail center and had another developer back out of creating a boutique hotel. Currently, the site is occupied by an on-site caretaker.
However, after years of non-use, Rockhaven needs around $4.8 million of work done to bring it up to “limited public use,” Calvert explained, after which any additional work for the redevelopment could occur. To that end, the council this week opened bidding for roof tile replacement on the structures, ahead of Southern California’s rainiest season.
“That estimate” — $4.8 million — “for the limited public use really represents kind of a floor to bring those buildings back into a usable condition but would still trigger additional improvements and costs that would need to be done,” Calvert added. “This site has had ad hoc mothballing for about 15 years, lacking really those more permanent safeguards to protect the integrity of those structures.”
Using previously approved funding and additional funding, the city expects to spend around $600,000 on repairs that will target the roofs and gutters of 10 of the buildings. Previously, the city had spent around $50,000 annually for roof maintenance.
“For years, we’ve been dealing with … temporary fixes to these roofs, by using tarps and other means to prevent water from entering these buildings,” Public Works Director Yazdan Emrani explained this week. “However, these are not sustainable solutions.”
Projecting toward the future, council members seem to agree that a solution for Rockhaven will mix public and private use. Ideally, they said, the site would have complementary amenities for the museum, whose revenues might help to offset new operating costs.
“It would be so wonderful to go to a restaurant in that setting. To go have a beer in that setting — it could be a wine bar, it does not have to be beer,” Councilman Dan Brotman said. “I could see spaces for events, like an art space, music and dance. People can rent it out for classes. Maybe we could have weddings there.”
Councilman Ardy Kassakhian wondered whether this was an opportunity to divorce the Montrose-Crescenta library from Fire Station 29, which lies just blocks away on Honolulu Avenue.
“I think relocating the library to the Rockhaven site creates a draw for people to come visit the library, use community rooms, [and] allow people to visit a museum that celebrates the history of women … in our city and region,” he said.
As a complementary project, Kassakhian suggested using the newly opened space at the fire station to renovate and upgrade its capacity. The councilman recalled the Station Fire in 2009 that devastated the Angeles National Forest and threatened various communities along the foothills.
“It is one of my favorite views in Glendale, seeing the hills — I think the hillsides and mountains are what makes Glendale special,” Kassakhian added, “but I can’t tell you how many times in driving up to the north part of the city, I look at those wonderfully lush hills and think to myself, ‘When?’”
Conversely, Councilman Ara Najarian pumped the brakes on relocating the library, contending it was too big a move. Still, he remained open to a mixed use for the space, placing coffee or tea rooms alongside meeting rooms for Scouts or other community groups.
“All the other ideas that we had thought [of] failed,” he said. “We wanted to have a large retail center — failed. We wanted to have a boutique hotel — failed. We don’t want to go down that route again. I think we do have to be mindful of our budget here.”
As part of the discussion, Councilman Vrej Agajanian lobbied to consider affordable housing ventures for the area.
Whatever transpires, the Friends of Rockhaven organization — founded to advocate and fundraise for the landmark’s preservation — are happy that the fourth time might be the charm for bringing new life to the property. The council is likely to include that organization, alongside historical societies, in the planning process.
“Senator Portantino’s work will help Rockhaven finally become what the city bought it to be,” said Joanna Linkchorst, president of Friends of Rockhaven, in a phone interview.