The Belgum Sanitarium

Hikers in the Wildcat Canyon hills above the city of Richmond may be surprised to come upon a glade full of palms and other exotic trees amid the chaparral and oak woodlands.

palms at the belgum sanitarium, richmond

These are the vestiges of a sanitarium that overlooked the bay, with views of San Francisco to the south southwest

san francisco view from east bay hills

and Richmond to the west.

view of richmond from tilden park hills

This was the location of the Grande Vista Sanitarium, founded by Dr. Hendrik Belgum in 1914. Residents of the sanitarium included drug addicts and alcoholics as well as the mentally or emotionally disordered — neighbors called it “the crazy house.” The sanitarium, advantageously located, catered to an up-scale clientele who wished to keep embarrassing members of their families out of view.

The centerpiece of the property was a large stucco mansion originally built by Jacob M. Tewksbury, a wealthy pioneer. Guests entered through a high-ceilinged foyer decorated with Tiffany chandeliers. Other features included a day room, library, kitchen, living room, and formal dining room. A curving staircase led to bedrooms and offices — nearly all with magnificent views — on a second floor.

One of these rooms served as Dr. Belgum’s office. As years went by, the doctor himself grew more and more eccentric and reclusive, preferring the company of his patients to that of the people he met on his expeditions into town. Neighbor children brave enough to sneak up to the mansion reported being spellbound by strains of enchanting music cascading down the hillside. It was said that the doctor and his ethereal sisters enjoyed dancing with the patients as the setting sun would cast its golden glow across the bay below them.

According to one of the doctor’s brochures, “To insure our guests an abundance of fresh, wholesome, nourishing food, so essential to the restoration of health, a select purebred dairy is maintained, also a poultry plan, an apiary, a fruit orchard, vegetable gardens, conservatories, private spring water system, etc.” Remains of some of the foundations can still be seen on the site.

In 1948 a grass fire suddenly flared up and threatened the idyllic estate. Dr. Belgum fought desperately to put out the blaze, and in that struggle he gave up his life. Then the mansion passed to his brother, Bernard N. Belgum, and sisters, Ida Ruth Belgum and Christine Heiman. A few patients remained with them as those melancholy years dragged on, though the surviving Belgums had no medical qualifications. As the turmoil of the fifties and early sixties raged in the cities ringing the bay, the sanitarium, in its remote setting, seemed frozen in time.

After Bernard’s death in 1963 at the age of 82, no heirs remained to inherit the estate. The grounds were simply abandoned, and all of the buildings had been burnt down by vandals by 1977. The following year, the East Bay Regional Park District acquired the land, which is now part of Wildcat Canyon Regional Park.

This part of the park is used for grazing cattle, who tramp down the hills above the sanitarium.

hils above the sanitarium

The sanitarium’s palms can be glimpsed beyond the thistles that grow where the cattle graze.

thistles and palms

To reach the site, take the Belgum trail from the Alvarado staging area in the Richmond hills.

alvarado staging area, wildcat canyon, richmond hills

A nearby display gives the history of the site. There is little material readily available about the Belgum sanitarium. (I have put up a few more pictures in my Belgum flickr set, which also contains larger versions of the images here.) Chad Dickerson of Yahoo posted some information about it, and consequently has been termed an “authority,” but really he just reprinted the material that is available at the site and does not appear to have done any original research. Still, he did post the materials from the site in their entirety, whereas I have been selective and have also added some narrative touches in order to tell the story of the sanitarium in a way that appealed to my imagination.

A more promising source of information is the El Cerrito Historical Society, which cites a publication called Richmond: Windows to the Past by Susan D. Cole (Contra Costa County Library, 1980). It includes “pictures and vignettes about early Richmond, including perhaps the best information available on the Belgum family’s Grande Vista Sanitarium, which was located near the mouth of today’s Wildcat Canyon Regional Park.” The Richmond Public Library probably has a copy, but I have not consulted it.

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  1. nice entry, interesting and well-written
    the cows over there are fearless!
    i had that book out from the richmond library last year for a paper, it’s good and i bet you’ve looked at it briefly–worth another visit. i wonder if there are any old photos from the sanitorium? i can potentially look it up on some primary source sites.

  2. thanks, jello. i’ll be in touch.

  3. Most interesting! I live in Richmond but never knew this place existed. Thanks for a most informative post!

  4. Thanks, Zoomie. There’s not much left but if you use your imagination you can kind of picture it.

  5. bill hoffland

    Hi, I am the Belgum’s great nephew. My mothers mom was the Belgum’s sister Marie. As a little kid we would make the long trek from SF to Richmond to visit uncle Barney and Aunt Cristine who lived one block from San Pablo Ave. And there was old aunt Inga and aunt Ida the spinster sisters who were living in the old sanitarium. Even though I was probably five years old or younger the memories are vivid. The place was interesting and very strange for a little kid, huge rooms, that I still remember that painted a picture in my mind that can’t go away. The library with it’s newspapers stacked to the cieling. The king chair in the hallway, the old cow painting on the landing of the stairs, painted by a famous CA artist that my cousin now owns. The huge dining room we had thanksgiving dinner in. The kitchen that Barney spent all his time in in his later years as he was not walking and was wheel chair bound. The billiard room with the antique pool table, which my cousin now owns with thousands of dead bees all along the walls and floor, the barn with the old wagons up a hill……. vivid memories for a five year old… my cousin who is ten years older has more info because he was older. We still visit the old place, check out the ruins, see the view, the fruit trees, the black berries and think about what might have been if my mom and aunt would have won … or done better in their legal matters trying to get part of the estate…. but we all feel good as folks who enjoy nature that it is in it’s natural state and part of the ebrp system. Enjoy a hike, pick some berries, and imagine like me what it was like back in the 20’s,,,, the 60’s a far different world than we live in today. Enjoy it. Bill

  6. Bill, I’m so happy to hear from you. Thank you for sharing your recollections.

  7. Margo Dean

    Any chance I can get in contact with Bill Hoffland? I’d like to interview him for a short video I’m producing on Dr. Belgum’s hospital. Thank you! Margo Dean

  8. Bill Hoffland

    I’m also in the phone book in S.F.

  9. Justin

    This is fantastic, thank you for your thoughts. I visited the site of the sanitarium a few months ago and was so taken by the story that I’ve begun research for a performance piece based on the institution. I am a local performance artist and find the history of Dr. Belgum and his sanitarium incredibly interesting and very aligned with my aesthetic vision/purpose.

    Margo, did you complete your short film? If so, I would love to have a look as I shape the tenuous mass of ideas that will eventually inform this work.

    Bill, similarly, do you have access to any old images of the site? Any insight you can provide would be fantastic and much appreciated. Additionally, your first-hand visual accounts of the sanitarium will be very helpful as I decide how to construct my piece visually.

    Xensen, thank you so much for putting this all together. What a great resource! If you can provide any further advice, information, etc. I would be very grateful. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one whose been captivated by the history of Dr. Belgum and his patients.