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Historian Reveals Story Behind Agnews Developmental Center

Historian Reveals Story Behind Agnews Developmental Center

“Early in the morning on April 18, 1906, all of the hospital’s buildings were rendered useless when the Great Earthquake struck … The earth opened and closed and the land on the eastern side shifted 16 feet to the north,” says Lorie Garcia, honorary city historian and author, at a July 30 talk at the Central Park Library. “The earthquake lasted 47 seconds…At the southern end of the San Francisco Bay Area, the most tragic scene resulting from the earthquake was at Agnew State Hospital … In the main building, the tower collapsed and fell all four floors between crumbling walls and crashed into the basement. All the other buildings were severely damaged.”

According to Garcia, 118 people died from the collapse. Such historical details can be found in Garcia’s book, “Agnews: Asylum, Hospital, Developmental Center 1885-1996.”

“My book is about the history of Agnews, the state hospital here in Santa Clara,” Garcia says. “Work started on it in 1886. It underwent several names. The first name was the California Hospital for the Chronic Insane. In 1889, the name was changed to the State Asylum at Agnews. Agnews State Hospital is what it later became. It was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake under the leadership of Dr. Leonard Stocking, the hospital superintendent, who believed that mental hospitals should be a facility where you treated patients who could be released back to society.”


According to Garcia, at one time, the hospital held up to 2,000 people and had 41 buildings, including farmlands and fields for growing food. The hospital started out with 323–½ acres spanning from what is now known as Montague Expressway, Lick Mill Boulevard and Lafayette Street to the Guadalupe River. Later, the purchase of 400 additional acres helped expand the hospital to the San Jose side of the Guadalupe River.

Garcia discusses how philosophies and laws related to mental illness and developmental disabilities affected the hospital.

Historian Reveals Story Behind Agnews Developmental Center

“In 1966, the first program for people with developmental disabilities was established at the hospital so now you’re looking at changing the hospital for the mentally ill into a hospital for the developmentally disabled,” she says. “In 1967, the Lanterman-Petris Short Act of California mandated the transfer of most mentally ill patients from state hospitals to community programs. To comply with this act, the hospital was reorganized. Now you have a decrease in what is classified as mentally ill, and the mentally retarded population increases. In 1971, we have the Lanterman Act. Because of this act, state hospitals in California were closed and the whole state system for mentally ill patients got completely restructured. In June 1972, the last mentally ill patient left Agnews. Now, you have just the developmentally disabled there. By 1978, they have 975 developmentally disabled people living at Agnews. It was still a state hospital but with a new function. In 1985, it was renamed the Agnews Developmental Center. So the buildings still existed but its use has changed. You have a completely different clientele.”

Garcia explains that the number of people with developmental disabilities at the hospital continued to shrink, as the state began transitioning the institutionalized into home care settings. By 1995, activity had gravitated to the other side of the Guadalupe River where the hospital still exists. In 1996, the State of California put up the 295-acre west campus for sale, with the area divided into two parcels.

“When all the dust settled down, Sun Microsystems bought the smaller parcel, which was 82–½ acres, for the development of their headquarter campus,” Garcia says. “The other parcel was bought by a company called Rivermark Partners. This area was developed into the Rivermark neighborhood.”


  1. Dave Salle 5 years ago

    I’d like to buy a copy of Lorie Garcia’s book on Agnews, but I can’t find it for sale anywhere. Any advice would be appreciated!

    Dave Salle

  2. Dawn Repp McCutcheon 4 years ago

    I also would like a copy of this book. Could you help me find a copy Thank you


  3. Alexies Polecat 4 years ago

    Information on where to purchase the book? My uncle was there. I do remember visiting him in the mid 90’s there.

  4. Karen powell 4 years ago

    Is there a list of the patients that were killed during the 1906 earthquake

  5. Kendra Ragland 4 years ago

    I have found memories of that place. My grandparents used to work there and my brother and I went to daycare there. My grandmother taught me to respect and have compassion for the patients.

    • Kendra Ragland 4 years ago

      Fond memories not found.

  6. Nita 3 years ago

    In 1963 I was accepted and was in the two year training program for psychiatric technician at Agnew. I completed the program and worked on one of the female adult wards until I transferred to a psychiatric hospital in San Francisco.

    • 1 year ago

      My mother was a patient in 1964 or 1965. She underwent electro shock treatments. She was a gifted seamstress and was given lots of needle work to occupy her time (mending sheets, pillow cases, etc.). We were always surprised to see the stack mending to be done when we went to visit her on the weekends.

  7. JD 3 years ago

    I worked there from 88-93, Program 7, Unit 44

  8. Stine 2 years ago

    In the early 80’s, (like 1983) part of it was a homeless shelter. My family stayed there. Before summer, they had a school, my brother and I could attend, my mother and baby brother had to leave the grounds and not come back until the end of the day. Up the street was a park a lot of the people who stayed at the shelter stayed during the day.

  9. Annmarie Lacy 1 year ago

    Hello I had a great aunt who was a patient in St Agnew’s until 1945. Is there anyone out there who may have information of the hospital at this time?

    Thank you

    From Ireland

  10. Laurie Wheelock 5 months ago

    I believe the zodiac killer may have been a patient at Agnew I believe 85 percent of his victims equistrians n he left alit of victims in vineyards do he ir she did not like grapes ir wine and was somehow involved with horses was there any patients that fits this describes

  11. Tanya 2 weeks ago

    Where can I get a copy of this book?

  12. Heather 2 weeks ago

    My family used to run the cafeterias on both the east and west campuses before it closed down and sold. We also ran the vending machines that were in the units and administration buildings on both campuses too. I was in I believe 5th and 6th grade the first time and from my junior year until I graduated the second time when we only handled the vending machines. We lived on the west campus the first time there and were there for the 1992 earthquake I believe it was? I graduated hs in 1998.

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