Garden Grove

Dark shadows at the Greenbrier Inn

Postcard for the Greenrbrier Inn in Garden Grove.

Postcard for the Greenrbrier Inn in Garden Grove.

By Jim Tortolano

If you drive up Harbor Boulevard in Garden Grove you’ll see a skyline rising of hotels, with more on the way. It’s the newly-named Grove District of the Anaheim Resort area, and is already bringing in thousands of tourists and millions of dollars in tax revenue to the city.

But none of those hotels is likely to approximate the legend of what was once one of the premier places of lodging in all of Orange County: the Greenbrier Inn.

The Inn and the associated Garden Grove Sanitarium hold a special place in not only the history of Orange County but in the heritage of the American film industry.

Located along Garden Grove Boulevard just west of Nutwood Street, those two establishments held more secrets and created more local folklore than any other place in the community.

The Sanitarium was opened in 1941 by Dr. Richard Carter, an Oxford grad with degrees in psychiatry and neurology. Along what was then a dusty two-lane road out in the sticks of Orange County he built an “acute psychiatric treatment center,” which in fact turned out to be the Betty Ford Clinic of its day.

“They offered and produced secrecy there, and that’s why it was successful,” said local historian Marge Swenson. “Movie stars would disguise themselves in their butler’s or maid’s clothes and take the Pacific Electric Red Car down to Garden Grove.”

Together with partner Roy Green, he operated the sanitarium for the glitterati of Hollywood, and then toured Europe after World War II picking up expensive antiques at distress-sale prices. Back in Garden Grove, they opened the opulent Greenbrier just west of the hospital. Judy Garland was among the famous that reportedly spent time detoxing there.

The Inn was the jewel of the city, even if its sylvan surroundings hid much of its light under a bushy bushel. The lobby and rooms were decorated with 14th century suits of armor, Persian rugs, marble statues and more.

For decades, the Inn served multiple purposes. Friends and relatives of the rich and famous drying out at the sanitarium stayed and wined and dined at the Inn. Local functions were held there in a grand style and many weddings, parties and even civic functions were held in the hotel and adjoining cottages on the lushly landscaped grounds. The author’s sister had her wedding reception at the Greenbrier in 1973.

That was near the end, though. Green, who ran the hotel, died “under mysterious circumstances” in Mexico around that time, and the Inn closed that year. The sanitarium held on for a few more years before it closed over licensing difficulties.

There are several eerie endings to the story. Carter was brutally slain by a houseboy who smashed a screwdriver through his skull. The accused claimed he acted in self-defense.

Dennis Witcher, a Garden Grove antiques dealer and history buff, told a spooky story about his efforts to appraise the value of items in the closed buildings.

“Frankly, the place scared the hell out of me. There were marble-topped slabs that were used for post-mortem examinations, rooms with dungeon-like cells … and rooms that looked like something right out of Frankenstein’s windmill and I [saw all] of this by flashlight in a Gothic English setting.”

Even after closing, the complex had a second life as a clandestine destination for skateboarders who penetrated the grounds and used the empty swimming pool as a free skate park.

In the Eighties a Newport Beach developer acquired the land and built a condominium complex and office building on the site. Other than the ceiling at the Azteca Mexican Restaurant on Main Street, formerly the bar at the Greenbrier, nothing remains of the place where Beverly Hills met Transylvania in the folklore of Orange County.



13 replies »

  1. The place always scared me just driving by. I never knew exactly why. Did Mr Witcher every sell the contents? Or keep any pieces? Very spooky…Why would they be doing post mortems there instead of the county morgue ?? Jim, I know I attended your sister’s wedding reception, but I didn’t remember it being held there. Makes me wish we had gone exploring !!! Perhaps the setting for a future novel of yours??

  2. Excellent article, Jim. My Mom once worked at the Garden Grove Sanitarium sometime during the early or mid-50’s and she had a lot of stories about the celebrities who stayed there. I never once saw the inside of the Greenbrier Inn. I wish I had.

  3. I worked there as the bookkeeper for many years…the INN DID NOT close the year after Roy Green died. I began working there in 1963 and worked for Dr. Carter until he closed it all down and moved to Idyllwild, actually up until the time he was murdered. Roy Green had already passed away when I began working there.

    • l worked there in 1973 and lived in the apartments around the corner.There was a lady that had worked for Dr. Carter all the years it was open. She was 70 or so. She had some stories to tell. It was really an experience. I was 21 at the time. It was fascinating to read the charts on all the patients . One night the charge nurse didn’t show up and I had to distribute the meds . I was at the time a nurse’s aide . I worked in the back part that was locked . Every door you went through was opened with a key that you were given . One time the Doctor apparently had to go to Palm Harbor to get his stomach pumped .. In the front part of the sanitarium the people that were more docile were kept there. l saw the cells for the criminaly insane . At the time I was there they were no longer used . i was told there were two types of insanity . The quiet ones and the noisy ones , the main drugs used at the time were reds and yellow jackets and some got thorozine. They would use restraints for the combative ones .. I also met a patient that was theresince he had had scarlet fever. Now that I look back he might have been autistic. I was told he was a private patient. In the front part there was a patient that had a double lobotomy . I was advised to not cross her due to her temper and being a large woman. Supposedly she had killed her husband. There were noises in the attic on certain nights. It was like the doctor’s partner was spying on us. At least at the time I was told that happened regularly. When I was there the place was rundown but you could see that in it’s heyday it was very opulent. On certain evenings the patients were served Welsh Rarebit . I was amazed that this place operated in the middle of the neighborhood. Very fascinating job and time in Garden Grove……..

  4. to continue … mortem examinations…..How ridiculous. Dr. Carter was not licensed for these procedures. “Urban” legend….i would imagine!

  5. Dr. Carter was my Mothers Uncle, whom as child we referred to as Uncle Bud. I remember going to visit his home there on Garden Grove Blvd. I have newspaper articles, pictures of some of his artwork, and letters he wrote to my Grandmother.
    I would love to connect with someone who worked there to hear stories.
    Nancy Sanchez

  6. I have vivid memories of my fellow jocks, stoners and others (from nearby La Quinta High School in Westminster) hopping the fence on Nutwood to the strains of a new song: “We Will Rock You.” The primal snare-and-bass drums, combined with the shadows in the moonlight in the halls and various rooms of the facility, along with our finds (empty bottles of thorazine, straps and torn clothing remnants) and a little illicit alcohol and drug use electrified the atmosphere. We probably were there for five minutes and went through only a few rooms before we either became spooked or unamused at the thought of being arrested for trespassing, but it was one of many memories of an obscure place that isn’t spoken about much.

  7. I worked at the sanitarium 1969 to 1970 as a nurses aide. It was like a nursing home then, no hollywood stars. There would only be 2 of us per shift for over 30 patients and Dr. Carter charged them a lot of money. I remember he cut a lot of corners just to make more $$. He was raking in the dough. I always said he got what he deserved.

  8. My family use to have Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at the Greenbrier Inn during the early 1960’s. It was lovely then!

  9. Why can’t I find one picture of the old sanitarium. It’s making me crazy. I remember driving by it all the time as a child and thinking what a scary place it was…

  10. But according to to the news the Richard Carter was killed by bandits who gagged him. But if the houseboy was the culprit, then his name was Maretti

  11. My great uncle was Roy Green (previously Greengrass), Dr. Carter’s partner, do you have any research info or photo’s you’d be willing to share with me please?

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