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.
Categories: Garden Grove