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FGE Area History

Forest Glade Estates is an interesting area with a varied past. Our neighborhood has been the site of the Mendenhall Ranch, a sanitarium, and a college. Following are some historical insights that may prove interesting. Further history notes and photos exist at the Heritage Guild and with homeowners Lee & Barbara Savoy.

Livermore Heritage Guild Newsletter of April 1989

The Sanitarium operated from 1895 until it closed in 1965. Founded by Dr. John Robertson, the Sanitarium originally occupied the William Mendenhall house and the old Livermore College building on College Avenue. By 1920 the grounds contained over seventeen buildings and the Sanitarium employed close to 300 people. The large trees that graced the driveway to the Hydro Building can still be seen on the grounds of the Cedar Grove Community Church that now occupies the site (corner of College Avenue and South L Street).

Elinor (Lin) Tobin, the granddaughter of Dr. Robertson, still lives in the house on South L Street that her father (Dr. John Robertson, Jr) built on the grounds in 1931. The following is from a 1931 interview with Lin.

"My grandfather was a fascinating man and interested in many things. His family had settled in the Crescent City/Eureka area and after attending medical school at U.C. Berkeley, he returned there to set up his medical practice. He also must have dabbled in politics some, because at one time he was a state legislator from that area. He became very interested in (the study of) alcoholism and mental disorders and moved from northern California to head up an alcohol clinic at Napa State Hospital. Later he also established a clinic in San Francisco (General Hospital?). Eventually, he found the site to build his own Sanitarium in Livermore. Probably the availability of the land (with usable buildings already on it) and the excellent climate of this area accounted for his decision. After retirement he wrote several books one on Sir Francis Drake and several on Edgar Allen Poe. He was fascinated with the latter, perhaps because Poe exhibited such a strange personality and was probably an alcoholic.

My grandmother was very beautiful and loved to entertain the literary and artistic colony that congregated in San Francisco at that time. Many of these would visit the "country", arriving here in horse and buggy, and picnicking at the encampment, a summer camp that the Robertson family maintained at Arroyo del Valle, along the creek. There are wonderful pictures of this area, one of which includes Ambrose Bierce holding one of my aunts (about 4 years old) on his lap.

My grandfather established a new type of treatment for the mentally ill. No longer were they to be kept as "closet cases"; on the contrary, he felt that beautiful surroundings, fresh air and TLC were very important for their well being and happiness. There were acres of gardens and well-kept grounds, walkways for the patients with nurses, and even a gymnasium (including bowling alleys, a basketball court and a swimming pool), plus croquet and tennis courts.

The large Grecian-style Hydro building was named for its hydro bath-showers, really with powerful water jets. (Along with massages these were used to calm and relax patients). Patients in this building could be fairly independent; most of them were recovering from drug or alcohol abuse and were no danger to themselves or anyone else. They could walk around the grounds or sometimes even downtown, often accompanied by a nurse. The Hydro also contained the doctors' offices, a drug room, a large lounge (complete with pianos and pool tables), a large formal dining room, and a huge kitchen. There were four other cottages that housed more severely disturbed patients, two for the men and two for the women: White and Rest Cottage, and the Solarium and Gables. (The middle section of the H-shaped Gables is still in use by the Savoy family, the house just south of my own on South L Street). There were also several other buildings such as my father's old family home, the Oaks and Mendenhall that provide housing for Sanitarium employees.

The Sanitarium was very self-sufficient and required a huge staff to maintain it. As a child growing up there, life was easy. Except for waiting on tables in the main dining room when I was a teenager, I had very little contact with the patients themselves, but all the many employees were "my friends". The main kitchen (in the Hydro) employed a chef known as Jack the Cook, who could have quite a temper but was always very kind to me. He had lost a leg and I used to be fascinated watching him maneuver his peg leg across the open slatted pallets that surrounded the cooking area. All the food was delivered in metal containers by truck to the other buildings on the west side of South L Street. I used to love to ride in the back of the truck and "help" the men deliver. I could also go down to the "engine room" and help fold sheets as they came hot off the mangle. This building housed all the laundry equipment as well as the steam plant that pumped the heat throughout the buildings (no thermostats in the residences). Steam heat was an excellent, moist type of heat, but very noisy. During the winter it would come on about 4 a.m. with much knocking and rattling. Our family was oblivious to this racket, but for houseguests it could cause quite a stir.

In retrospect, it seems as if the Sanitarium was a little city in itself. It employed gardeners, cleaning personnel, painters, carpenters, electricians, floor waxers, laundry workers, food and kitchen help, etc. It raised its own beef, chicken, eggs, and pork and of course did all its own baking. For the patients themselves there were occupational and physical therapists, nurses and attendants, and a staff of at least six or seven psychiatrists. A lot of these employees lived right on the grounds and so their housing, meals, laundry, etc. were provided for them.

After finishing medical school, including a period of study of psychiatry in Vienna, my father returned here about 1926. He built the home where I am currently living in 1931. Dr. Podstata was managing the Sanitarium at that time and continued to do so until the management position was later taken over by Dr. Clifford Mack. In 1954, my father suffered a major heart attack causing him to retire and move to Cannel. He would still come back in the summer to relieve other doctors who were on vacation and to stay involved in the workings of the Sanitarium.

In 1958, my husband, Don Tobin, and I returned to the old homestead and he took over the business management of the Sanitarium. He oversaw its closure seven years later (1965). Why did it have to close? It was inevitable; so many changes had come about. In the first place, it was very difficult to find enough help to run a facility the size of this one and continue to provide the kind of service its reputation implied. It simply was not practical. Present day mental facilities are far more compact and centrally oriented. New medical treatments also led to the Sanitarium's demise as tranquilizers, psychoanalysis, etc. became available and often-allowed patients to stay at home.

It's a shame that this lovely park-like facility could not have been maintained, but now it's a thing of the past."

Livermore Herald - Maitland Henry's Reflections Column 11/7/24

"The grounds of the Livermore Sanitarium present one of the most attractive sights in the Livermore Valley. The extensive and well-kept lawns and gardens, with their wealth of rare trees and shrubs, together with the bright blossoms of the various flowers in season, make the grounds around the hydropath building and surrounding the cottages a place of beauty. The location of the grounds so that they border main traveled roads over which hundreds of visitors to Livermore travel each week, particularly on Sundays, is specially fortunate as visitors traveling by auto are enabled to view this beauty spot of which Livermore is extremely proud."