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The Formosa Cafe is closed, but the building remains protected

The city would have to sign off on any plans to demolish it or alter its exterior.

The Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood
Thomas Hawk / Curbed LA Flickr

There's some good news about the historic Formosa Cafe, which closed abruptly last month.

The city of West Hollywood protects the building housing the 1930s-era bar and restaurant, meaning that anyone wishing to demolish the structure or alter its exterior must seek permission under the city's historic preservation ordinance, John Keho, the city's assistant director of community development, told Curbed.

[UPDATE: New details emerge about plans to salvage the shuttered Formosa Cafe]

"Any building can be torn down, but it would have to go through a process, and it's a complicated process to tear down a building that has protection through our historic criteria," Keho said. The building also falls under the protections of the California Environmental Quality Act, he added.

The Formosa Cafe came under West Hollywood's historic preservation law in the 1990s, when it was still owned by Warner Bros. as part of the property of the adjacent former Warner Hollywood Studio, now The Lot.

The cafe building was later sold and became the property of Clarion Partners, which also owns the West Hollywood Gateway shopping center that encircles the cafe. But the historic preservation protection remains.

The Formosa Cafe's previous lessee, Vince Jung, shuttered the cafe in late December.

Jung had removed much of the cafe's historic decor in a misguided attempt to update it and bring in new customers; when that failed, he tried to restore some of the cafe's old decor, but it never bounced back, Vintage Los Angeles' Alison Martino told KPCC's "Take Two" on Monday.

"There's not many bars, local watering holes, where you can say, 'I'd like to sit in the booth where Marilyn Monroe sat. I want to sit ... where Lana Turner did the scene in L.A. Confidential," said Martino, a well-known LA cultural historian and preservation advocate.

The owner of the building is reportedly seeking a new tenant for the space, who might resurrect the Los Angeles institution.

If the new tenant wants to restore the Formosa Cafe, the restaurant's original artifacts are in storage, Martino said. (It's unclear who has the rights to all of that stuff.) But if a new tenant wants to gut the interior and put in a pizza place, that's where West Hollywood's preservation ordinance won't help.

"Preservation is about buildings, not people operating a business inside the building," Keho said. "So a new restaurateur can come in, and they can open it right back up without dealing with any historic preservation issues."

What about the buidings facade?

"If they want to change the exterior of the building, then they would have to come to the city, and we would review those changes to make sure comply with the historic preservation ordinance," Keho said.