“Where All Nervous and Chronic Diseases Can Be Cured”: The Home Sanitarium, South Los Angeles, 30 April 1909

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As has been noted in this blog previously, the state of medicine and health in America and in greater Los Angeles was in a transformative mode with life expectancy rising and medical care through institutions, drugs and other methods improving, but there were still plenty of miracle cures and quack practitioners out there.

In this region, with its phenomenal temperate climate, there was a tremendous attraction for health-seekers fleeing the frigid winters and hot, humid summers of the midwestern and eastern states.  Once transportation routes were established this allowed for direct rail access to the area, particularly the transcontinental line brought in by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe at the end of 1885, which led to the great Boom of the Eighties, invalids trekked in to seek cures.

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Los Angeles Times, 8 May 1904.

This led to the prominence of the sanitarium, institutions that took in invalids for a variety of ailments, physical and psychological.  The foothill region of the western San Gabriel Valley, especially in Monrovia and Sierra Madre, had a number of these facilities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as did Los Angeles.

There was the Los Angeles Sanitarium at the base of Bunker Hill, Barlow Sanitarium in the Elysian Hills and many others, including the Home Sanitarium, a real photo postcard of which is the highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection for this post.  While South Los Angeles wasn’t a hotbed of health seekers, there were some advantages in location, especially distance from the growing urban areas of the city to the north and proximity to cooling ocean breezes from the west.

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Times, 16 October 1904.

The site, however, was originally the Hotel Ascot, built as part of a real estate development project by C.M. Graves and Lina Fountain, the latter being a rare example of a woman working in the field.  The hostelry was named because of its proximity to Ascot Park, a horse track and early race car speedway on 160 acres opened at the end of 1903 and covered here in a recent post.  A post three years ago featuring a detailed map of the area from Baist’s Atlas included the location Ascot Park, just a couple of blocks southwest of the hotel of that name.

A May 1904 article in the Los Angeles Times described the sixty-room hotel, said to cost about $22,000, in some detail, noting that there was a parlor, barbershop, and dining room and that it “its furnishings and equipment are to be of the latest modern patterns.”  It was anticipated the hostelry would open in October in time for the fall horse racing season.  The Los Angeles Railway’s brand new streetcar barns were also nearby so there was mass transit right to the locale.

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Los Angeles Herald, 30 December 1908.

While the Hotel Ascot did advertise and had paying customers, it didn’t last particularly long and, by the end of 1908, a permit was granted for the operation of the Home Sanitarium in the building, with operations appearing to have begun by mid-January of the following year.  The institution’s primary owners were John Irving McKenna and his wife Catherine Hickey McKenna.

Irving, as he was known, was born in Santa Barbara in 1873, grew up in Santa Paula, east of Ventura, and then attended the University of Southern California, which was still affiliated directly with the Methodist Episcopal Church.  He then studied in the law firm of Jones and Weller in Los Angeles and was admitted to the bar during the 1890s.  He was an officer in the California National Guard in two companies of the Seventh Regiment and was deployed during the Spanish-American War in 1898.  He retired with the rank of major and was a commander of the United Spanish War Veterans chapter in the area.

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Los Angeles Express, 25 January 1909.

Catherine hailed from Taunton, Massachusetts, south of Boston, where she was born in 1875 and then moved to Colorado, where she graduated from the state normal school for teacher education in 1896.  She moved to Los Angeles in 1902 and was a school teacher for five years, during which time she met and married Irving, the two tying the knot in 1906, according to their entries in Who’s Who in the Pacific Coast in 1913.

The couple had three children, although the 1910 census recorded that the pair were married in 1898 with two children born in Colorado the following two years.  Given that Irving was living alone in Los Angeles when enumerated in the 1900 and was listed as single, it may be that Catherine had a previous marriage or had her children out of wedlock.

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Los Angeles Herald, 18 April 1909.

In any case, when the McKennas opened their sanitarium, Irving was the manager and Catherine the nurse.  The postcard shows the three-story wood-frame structure on the northwest corner of Central and 56th, with a pair of store fronts along Central, and the building projecting quite a distance along 56th.

The Los Angeles Herald of 30 December 1908 reported that “this place has been a white elephant ever since the races stopped at Ascot park,” this referring to the banning of horse racing and its associated gambling and other social evils, though the auto racing soon became the primary activity as the venue.

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Herald, 3 June 1909.

The health department was said to have observed that the former hotel was “an ideal place for a sanitarium, especially a rest cure for nervous diseases.” McKenna was reported to have run a similar institution in San Francisco and a partner named Lloyd Byron was purported a founder of the first lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, a prominent fraternal society.

While there was a last-ditch effort in the first days of 1909 to deny a permit for the operation of the sanitarium, the first advertisement located in the Los Angeles Times from 24 January promoted the facility as for those who “need [a] special diet” while the “location insures [ensures] pure air, sunshine and pure water” and was “a place where you can be comfortable.”  It helped that a streetcar line stopped right out front.

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Herald, 18 August 1909.

An ad the following day from the Los Angeles Express was, however, far more detailed and promised much more:

This is a home where all nervous and chronic diseases can be cured, using all forms of electricity, imported violet rays; baths, massage, lots of sun, pure air, wholesome diet; a place to rest and give the nerves a chance to recuperate.  Can positively cure Bright’s disease, rheumatism, paralysis, stomach trouble, all forms of catarrh and skin diseases.

The brief message on the postcard’s reverse stated to the recipient in Salina, Kansas, “All’s well.  Still doing nicely and next few days will being great gain in strength and health.”  It does appear from newspaper references that the place did steady business, though many of the patients were apparently elderly and there was a fairly regular listing of deaths recorded in the papers of those staying at the sanitarium.

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The McKennas as recorded with their family and staff at the Home Sanitarium in the 1910 federal census.

Yet, there were also facilities for the opposite end of the human lifespan, as the facility advertised in spring 1909 that “we offer a prize of $25 for the first boy and $25 for the first girl born in our Sanitarium.”  A subsequent ad noted that “we take surgical, medical and obstetrical cases.”  The institution formally incorporated in June with the McKennas joined by a partner, H.H. Forline, who was licensed as a pharmacist a couple of months prior, and $100,000 in stock was issued.

In August, a rather remarkable procedure took place at Home Sanitarium, as covered by the Herald of the 18th.  Lucy Adams, a 76-year old said to be wealthy, was suffering from cancer, so her 23-year old grandson, Harry, offered to undergo a blood transfusion to help her.  The paper claimed that “the operation is the third in the history of surgery.”

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Times, 22 October 1910.

In any case, the young man was warned that the procedure could prove fatal, though as the four surgeons conducted the operation with four others in attendance, he “chatted and encouraged his relative.”  Notably, no anesthetic was used, so the wince of pain as an artery was opened was the only sign of discomfort and it was said the elderly woman “ravaged by disease, bore the trial with stoical indifference.”  During the hour that the transfusion transpired and the two patients “laughed and remarked at the sacrifice.”

The procedure was declared a success and the paper added that “it was the second time in the history of western surgery that a similar operation had been performed.”  While doctors declared that “hope of ultimate recovery was not advanced” by the operation “it is believed that she has taken a new lease on life” and was “in better condition than when she entered the Home sanitarium.”

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Times, 20 December 1910.

The same, however, could not be said for the financial health of the McKennas.  In October 1910, the Times reported that Catherine was accused of fraud because she was alleged to have “concealed property in order to procure a discharge as a bankrupt from the United States District Court.”  Specifically, she purportedly declared her personal property to be just $50 “when in reality she had an interest in the Home Sanitarium.”

The institution was only open a little more than a year when, in February, Catherine filed her bankruptcy petition citing six creditors, including a gas and electric company and an ornamental iron works.  The six challenged her assertions and claimed “she owned the furniture in the sanitarium.”  Of course, as noted above, she was also a shareholder and a bankruptcy referee noted that “she had an equity” in the facility.

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He also reported that she and Irving were in possession of the institution and “have received the income and have kept no books whatsoever.”  Catherine tried to convey her interest to the company upon incorporation, but, because there wasn’t even the base compensation of $1, it was void.  The report gave the value of the property as $20,000, but there was not only the expense of the furnishings and improvement, but $4,500 in outstanding mortgages.

Two months later, in December, the Times reported further that Irving’s lawyers sought to get the federal judge to refer the bankruptcy petition back to the referee.  The article observed that

McKenna and his wife some time ago organized the Home Sanitarium at the old Ascot Hotel.  They turned all of their interests into the hotel company and took stock.  When McKenna filed his [her?] petition in bankruptcy, he [she?] failed to list either his [her?] holdings or the stock.

Nothing further was located on the matter, but the Home Sanitarium closed and the McKennas moved on.  In fact, in January 1912, Catherine achieved an unusual distinction as she was admitted to the state bar, one of the few women locally to become an attorney, and joined her husband in a practice that lasted for years.  Irving died in 1952 and Catherine died fifteen years later.

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The photo is an interesting artifact concerning the prevalence of sanitariums in greater Los Angeles during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the question of how medical services were promised and delivered and how financial practices could become a serious problem for those either unprepared or unwilling to manage a business successfully.

2 thoughts

  1. Woah this was 3 blocks from where I live. Now there’s a homeless outreach center. Thanks for the history!

  2. Hi Irv, thanks for the comment. We use Google Maps all the time to see what is at a site today that was referred to in a post. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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