Community members were shocked in late July when the historic Formosa Café, widely understood to be a protected West Hollywood Local Cultural Resource, re-opened after a short closure with its vintage black and red Chinoiserie interior, as featured in films like 'L.A. Confidential," transformed into a generic grey sports bar. Wasn't the Formosa legally protected from such alterations? How had this happened? 

West Hollywood Heritage Project, a local advocacy group known for its work on the Dr. Jones Dog and Cat Hospital and The Factory, has set out to reveal the answers about what happened. 

Around January 1991, the public became aware of Warner Brothers’ plan to raze all the buildings on the lot at the corner of Santa Monica Blvd and La Brea- which included the Formosa Café (the red car and the building). In response, local residents and some film actors and directors formed the activist group 'Friends of the Formosa.' Friends of the Formosa gathered signatures and held at least one rally in support of preserving the Formosa Café. They also stated they were going to apply to the city to get the Formosa Café designated as a ‘landmark.’ 

Chinoiserie interior of the Formosa Cafe red car. Photo: zagat

Under pressure of the bad PR from the Friends of the Formosa, Warner Brothers changed their plans from razing the Formosa Café to preserving it and moving it 250 feet to where it sits today. Also, Warner Brothers renewed the then tenant’s lease. 

So then it seems the Friends of the Formosa dropped their protest, and called the Formosa Café 'preserved.' And the City of West Hollywood eventually started listing the Formosa Café on the city’s official list of Local Cultural Resources. 

According to recent research done by the West Hollywood Heritage Project, this is the current status of the Formosa Café: the Formosa Café (the red car and the building) was never formally designated as a Local Cultural Resource. The Development Agreement for the site (the Eastside Gateway) states that no buildings would be designated (as Local Cultural Resources), but certain structures on the site required a review as historic resources.

Under the Development Plan for the site, the Formosa Café building is listed as a secondary contributing resource, and the red car is a primary contributing resource.  

The Development Agreement states that the Formosa Café building and red car be treated similar to a designated building, in that it is protected and requires any changes to be approved by the city. The interior may not be protected though because West Hollywood Local Cultural Resources usually only specify exteriors as protected. However, since the Formosa Café is protected then any changes to the exterior and interior need to be approved by the city prior to making the changes.

The West Hollywood Heritage Project is currently verifying if the interior of the Formosa Café is or is not protected under the Comprehensive Development Plan for the site.

However, the West Hollywood Heritage Project has verified that the city does not have any record of permits pulled for interior changes, or change of tenant notification. The city has referred the issue to their Code Compliance Division to investigate.