West Hollywood’s Historic Preservation Commission last night voted to recommend the designation of the Formosa Café as a cultural resource. Its recommendation will go to the City Council for final approval.
The Formosa is one of the city’s most iconic restaurants and bars, famed as the dining spot for actors and directors involved in films made across the street at what now is known as The Lot, which was the original Pickford-Fairbanks Studio in 1922. And it was a bit infamous for its mob connections. For years, Los Angeles gangster Johnny Stompanato and his lover, actress Lana Turner, frequented the Formosa for their “back room” meetings with Johnny’s boss, mobster Mickey Cohen.
The Formosa Café currently is being renovated by its owner, the 1933 Group, whose collection of bars includes the Harlowe in West Hollywood. The design of its bars reflects the era of the company’s name. The 1933 Group anticipates reopening the Formosa later this year.
The Formosa was eligible for designation as a cultural resource because it is identified with persons or events significant in local, state or national history, one of the criteria for such a designation. Another criterion the Formosa Café meets is that it has “distinguishing characteristics of an architectural or historical type or specimen.” That distinction is based on the Formosa’s repurposed Pacific Electric Red Car, a trolley built between 1901 and 1906 that is now home to the Formosa’s bar. The 1933 Group has been restoring that classic car using money it received from the Los Angeles Conservancy, which promoted the Formosa in a national contest for grants from Partners in Preservation.
The 1933 Group also is putting old black and white photographs back on the walls of the café and restoring the seating there and in the bar. An old bar from a location in Chinatown is being added as part of a bar in the back.
That is all part of an effort to restore the famous style of the restaurant, which originally was called the Red Post Café. New York prizefighter Jimmy Bernstein bought it in 1925, added a red train car to its side for more dining space and called it Formosa Café. New owners purchased it in July 2015 and transformed the interior by taking down the the 8 x 10 photographs, painting the red interior a battleship gray, and adding a rooftop garden bar was added. The menu changed drastically, featuring new items like microbrew beers and toasted cheese sandwiches. The shell of the red train car was all that remained of the original Formosa design. The changes upset local preservationists, some of whom praised the Historic Preservation Commission’s decision last night.
“The West Hollywood Preservation Alliance finds it very exciting to have the HPC finish what the Cultural Heritage Advisory Board recommended decades ago in designating the Formosa Café a local cultural resource,” said Roy Rogers Oldenkamp, a member of the HPC board. “WHPA would like to give a shout out to historian Stacy Failing, who befriended the owners and persuaded them to save former owner Jimmy Bernstein’s and subsequent owners’ many headshots of celebrities who dined there over the years.
“Because of Stacy, we have the original menus ,many intact furnishings, even the Chinese lanterns over the banquettes, all save one that virtually disintegrated when taken down.”
Oldenkamp said the WHPA believes the Formosa Café may also qualify for historic designation on a state and national level.
If a building is designated as a cultural resources, there are restrictions imposed on the changes its owner can make. An owner wanting to remodel such a building must get the city’s approval and all changes must meet standards and design guidelines based on the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. A building designated as a historic or cultural resource by the state may qualify for a tax exemption under the Mills Act will actively participating in the restoration and maintenance of their historic properties.