The documentary film “Agnews: Our Jewel in the Silicon Valley,” featured September 11 at the Harris-Lass Museum’s free fall movie night, stirred the memories of Marlene and Joe Blandford.
“In town, we didn’t know much about Agnews. We thought it was a place for crazy people,” says Marlene, who, like her mother, was born in Santa Clara. “That’s why–as a small child–I was always scared of it. Once, when I was in the pear orchard off 1st Street, I heard someone from there scream. It was a place of mystery and fear for me.”
Marlene’s husband, Joe, had better memories.
“I worked at Agnews in 1958 as an apprentice plumber. We put in steam pipe in the basement of the new cafeteria,” says Joe.
The mysteries and history of Agnews State Hospital were revealed to Santa Clarans who packed the Harris-Lass Museum barn for each of the three showings of the first half of the 66-minute documentary about California’s third (but first “modern”) state hospital for the mentally ill, which opened in 1888 and closed in 2009. Intended to be a “cheerful” place, Agnews once operated as a small, self-contained town, even with its own fire department and train station.
The original multi-story, unreinforced masonry Agnews building crumbled and more than 100 lives were lost in the 1906 earthquake. The campus was then redesigned as a series of cottages along tree-lined streets. The new Agnews Developmental Center survived floods in the 1950s and finally closed its doors in 2009. The Agnews Historic Cemetery & Museum, 1250 Hope Drive, is open by phone appointment, (408) 615-3790, on Fridays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
With seating in the Harris-Lass barn for about twenty-five to thirty as chairs kept being added, it was standing room only for the first two movie viewings Friday night. The documentary, created to be used at the opening of the Agnews Museum in May 2010, is available at the City library.
Before and after the movie, attendees enjoyed free popcorn and cider and a mild evening to stroll the gardens of the 1865 Harris-Lass House Museum, 1889 Market St., Santa Clara. Movie night is sponsored annually by the Historic Preservation Society of Santa Clara (HPSSC).
“Movie night is always very popular,” says Bob Byrd, president of the HPSSC Board of Directors. “We try to find local history films. People never seem to grow tired of their local history. I think that’s great.”
Volunteer Lou Faria, co-chair with Jeannie Mahan of the annual Historic Home Tour sponsored by HPSSC and the Old Quad Residents’ Association, points out that early bird tickets for the popular holiday event on December 4 and 5, will be available October 1 – 31 for $20. From November 1, tickets will be $30 for general admission and $25 for seniors and children/youth 6- 21. Visit the home tour website for details: www.sc-hometour.com, or call the Harris-Lass Museum message line, (408) 249-7905. Faria cautions that tickets sometimes sell out so buy early.