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Citizen Preservationist

March 15, 2023 Think THF

Citizen Preservationalist
Photo courtesy of Bobby Green

The City of the Future. Los Angeles wore the label for most of the 20th century. The moniker implied an optimistic destiny for a city whose status as a world capital was predicated on the automobile.

With this mentality came developers whose regard for the past was nonexistent. At the century’s halfway mark, awareness of the slow disappearance of the city’s past was still to be realized. Los Angeles, at this point, was still focused on the future, and the building boom was unabated.

The preservation of America’s past has a legacy of being an uphill battle for many urban areas in all 50 states. For those cities that have formalized preservation organizations, the work is ongoing, with successes tempered by the destruction of the large and small. The Los Angeles Conservancy has been at the vanguard of preservation efforts in the LA area for over 40 years. Its ModCom Committee was an indication of the strength of a new generation of citizen preservationists who sought out and identified nontraditional buildings for preserving and designating as landmarks. Among the structures that were the object of their focus were midcentury residential and commercial structures. But they were also seeking the under-the radar movements such as the diminishing Googie style with its striking coffee shops, bowling alleys, car washes, motels and gas stations — objects that Los Angeles was noted for. These atypical architectural forms rarely caught the eye of mainstream preservation efforts until renewed interest in this area of study was launched by the 1972 publication of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas. Their observations-initiated books and essays that revealed the built environment, including the roadside, and their anonymous creators. Books by John Margolies, John Baeder, Richard Gutman, and my own publication, California Crazy, sparked intensive research and sent many nascent preservationists throughout cities, suburbs and remotely traveled roads, investigating and identifying the postwar and oddball remains of a recent past.

Enter one Bobby Green, a Southern California businessman who is helping reverse the unchecked process of eliminating building types that had once been a defining component of LA’s identity. Investing his passion and purse to save and bring back LA’s past, Green’s tale is a preservation success story with a very nontraditional approach — told here through three of his most challenging restored historic properties to date. 

Idle Hour

The first opportunity to save a programmatic landmark and create a successful business came to Green by way of Chris Nichols, editor at Los Angeles Magazine and one of the city’s most knowledgeable historians. Nichols, a seasoned preservation activist, was well aware of the Idle Hour, a massive barrel-shaped building in the flatlands of the San Fernando Valley. Built as a taproom and cafe in 1941 by Michael Connolly, a film technician at Universal Studios, the building slipped into the hands of his wife after a divorce. By 1971, it had been sold to a couple that created a flamenco dinner theater called La Caña that closed in 1984. The building languished for years, its tenuous condition making it ripe for demolition. Nichols took it upon himself to fight to get the building landmarked, which he accomplished in 2010. Green knew of the building since it was in a neighborhood where he had gone to junior high school. Informed by Nichols that the structure would be auctioned, Green made the purchase a reality in 2011. As he stated at the time, “This is the first time we get to restore history.”

Idle Hour 1941
The Idle Hour Cafe was built in the 1940s and lured thirsty patrons with “idle hours” to come and imbibe until the 1960s. / Photo courtesy of 1933 Group

Faced with a landmark that needed a lot of help, the challenge to create not only a viable business but one that honored the architectural integrity of the building proved a daunting task (and one that would ultimately be a $2 million investment). Part of the process was to validate the idea that the remnants of Los Angeles’ past could be preserved and have a successful secondary life. With this in mind, the restoration began. Rather than having to develop a theme as he had done with previous bars (see sidebar on Page 35), the building came with an affixed history. Green did thorough research, digging for every available photo and interviewing all parties associated with the building.

Fortunately, the structure had retained most of its integrity, but the barrel itself had sustained acute rot, prompting the replacement of all the exterior wood. Stained glass windows were restored and hardware matching the original was sourced.

Because the property included room for an outdoor patio, one was erected. As an added bonus, Nichols once again steered Green to a replica of the giant Bulldog Cafe that was housed in the Petersen Automotive Museum. As part of an upgrading, they were eliminating the set piece but were happy to donate it to whomever would take it off their hands. For Green, it was a no-brainer. The dog was disassembled and carted off to Idle Hour’s patio where it was reconstructed and made into a private dining room. Voila! Two programmatic buildings on the same lot.

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The pipe-smoking pup is now a centerpiece of Idle Hour’s outdoor patio that also doubles as a private dining area. / Photo courtesy of William Bradford

Formosa Cafe

The Formosa Cafe was a unique opportunity to rehabilitate and restore a legendary restaurant from Hollywood’s past. Opened in 1939, its proximity to the movie studio across the street made it a convenient watering hole for actors and actresses. It’s smoky atmosphere practically begged gossip scribes to transcribe the goings-on within its Chinese-themed depths, an aesthetic heavily informed by its Hong Kong-born co-owner and longtime chef Lem Quon.

Filmmaker John Waters paid the ultimate compliment to the newly restored Formosa Cafe declaring, “I always thought this is exactly what Hollywood should look like.” / Photo courtesy of William Bradford

Like many fabled places, it was transformed multiple times through the years under the guidance of original owner Jimmy Bernstein, and later with Quon, who became Bernstein’s partner a couple of decades later. By 2011, it was about to be closed, but developers of the property and the adjoining shopping center were enlightened enough to want to save the restaurant from demolition and regain its former status.

The restaurant’s situation had been closely watched by Green, who was among the bidders asking to restore the restaurant. Based on previous work, the 1933 Group received the commission in January 2017. The restoration effort received an additional boost from the LA Conservancy, which encouraged them to apply for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Partners in Preservation: Main Streets, which awarded them a $150,000 grant.

Tasked with bringing back the Formosa’s glory years, Green envisioned a revival that would eclipse even the best of the restaurant’s former days. This included meticulously restoring the Red Car rail line addition from 1939 that clung to the side of the restaurant. Peeling back the layers of the 1902 streetcar required time-consuming patience and a staff of experts. The retention of the famous celebrity photographs that lined the walls also demanded an intense commitment. All the images were removed, cataloged, restored and rehung exactly where they had been. Contemporary light fixtures were replaced with Chinese lanterns that were not part of the original interior but inspired by the set decorations when the movie L.A. Confidential used the bar for location filming. Artifacts used in the filming of 1937’s The Good Earth were brought from China, used in the movie and sold off. One ornate bar was installed in the Yee Mee Loo restaurant in downtown LA’s Chinatown. Eventually, it ended up in Green’s hands and is now featured in a new section of the Formosa.

Bobby Green committed to not only preserving but celebrating that the Formosa Cafe’s ownership of what is most likely the last surviving 800 series train/trolley car in the world, dating back more than 115 years. He also gave careful consideration to how the cafe would exhibit images and themes about Asians in Hollywood history. / Photo courtesy of 1933 Group

When told that legendary LA gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen frequented the place and ran a bookmaking racket in a back room, Green responded by featuring a section of the restaurant dedicated to the hoodlums. A bonus was discovered when a submerged drop box for Siegel’s money was found while restoring the floor. The safe is now prominently featured at the foot of one of the booths.

Tail o' The Pup

Veloz and Yolanda, a well-known Hollywood dance team, named their new 1946 investment Tail o’ the Pup in a humorous nod to the nearby fine-dining establishment Tail o’ the Cock. Located curbside on La Cienega Boulevard, the diner received a movie premiere-style opening and never turned back. A stalwart hot dog stand, it served up red hots that “snapped” at that location until the mid-‘80s, when real estate demands forced the new owners to move several blocks away. In 2005, the stand once again faced eviction from developers. The owners closed down and pulled up stakes, transporting the giant wiener to a warehouse. All the while, Green was keeping his eye on the activity and finally made the move to buy the stand and all of the rights to the name in 2018.

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Previously hidden away in a storage facility waiting to be saved, the refurbished structure now serves its dogs (aka pups), burgers, fries and milkshakes in style at its new location on Santa Monica Boulevard. / Photo courtesy of 1933 Group

Then began the hard work. The structure was moved to the 1933 Group’s Burbank warehouse where restoration progressed for two years. To accommodate his vision, they had to update virtually every surface while still maintaining the original structure. There was no rush because a location for the Pup was pending. The dog was taken apart and its metal midsection reinforced from the inside. The wood frame and stucco ends of the bun and wiener were refurbished. The door of the hot dog also served as its awning and when opened had to be manually operated. Knowing its weight would be a problem, Green stepped in and devised a motorized apparatus that now opens the door with a flick of a switch. He calls this “common sense engineering,” born from his experience owning his own automotive speed shop.

When a location was finally found on Santa Monica Boulevard, only blocks from its original placement, the fact that it was part of Route 66 only added to its roadside credentials. Facing the street, the Pup is a stand-alone structure on a plot that housed a former restaurant. Prior to that, it was the 1972 studio for the rock band The Doors, who recorded their final album there.

Bobby Green purchased the rights to the Tail o’ The Pup moniker and promised to restore Hollywood’s favorite hot dog stand to look and function the way it did for some 60 years prior. / Photo courtesy of 1933 Group

This area was converted to a full-scale kitchen and indoor dining area with a second-story patio. With its complex complete, Tail o’ The Pup was back in service in pristine condition. Another Los Angeles icon saved and ready to serve.

This post was adapted from an article written by Jim Heimann in the Winter-Spring 2023 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.