On Wednesday, September 12, the Los Angeles Conservancy and Miracle Mile Residential Association submitted an application to the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission to nominate Tom Bergin’s Old Horseshoe Tavern and Thoroughbred Club (more recently known as Tom Bergin’s House of Irish Coffee) as an Historic Cultural Monument.
The tavern, which closed earlier this year after being in business since 1936, was a neighborhood fixture since its inception, and holds the second oldest liquor license in the city. It has been nominated both for its importance to “the broad cultural, economic or social history of the nation, state or community,” and for the building’s distinctive Tudor-Revival architecture.
“Bergin’s is probably the best known ‘landmark’ in town that doesn’t actually enjoy the protections of official historic monument status,” said Ken Hixon, MMRA vice president, in a statement provided yesterday to the Buzz. “It was the place for locals to gather and rub elbows with its more famous patrons like Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, or Julia Roberts. Tom Bergin’s plays a very celebrated role in the history of the Miracle Mile. The MMRA is dedicated to the preservation of the building.”
Adrian Scott Fine, speaking for the Conservancy in the same statement, agreed, saying, “Tom Bergin’s reflects L.A.’s history, culture, and people. As economic and development pressures intensify across the city, it is important to support long-operating, legacy businesses and recognize their significant imprint on our heritage.”
The Mid-City West Community Council provided funding for the nomination effort, and Keith Nakata, co-chair of the Mid City West Planning and Land Use Committee said, “The Mid City West Community Council overwhelmingly felt that it was important to participate, along with other community partners, in the funding and the preparation of the Historic Cultural Monument application. This application will preserve a written history of the iconic Tom Bergin’s, a treasured gathering place of the community for over 80 years. From locals to celebrities, everyone felt welcome at this Los Angeles landmark.”
According to the application packet, prepared by consulting firm Architectural Resources Group, “attorney-turned-restaurateur” Tom Bergin first opened his Irish tavern in 1936, at 6110 Wilshire BIvd. In 1949, Bergin moved the business to a new building he erected at 840 S. Fairfax Ave., which was specifically designed for the bar and restaurant.
The iconic building, in use until this year, was designed in the Tudor-Revival style common to many homes in the area, which were mostly built in the 1920s-1940s. But Bergin’s is one of the neighborhood’s few commercial buildings in the style. Distinctive building materials, which help evoke the Irish countryside, include clinker brick, wood and stucco.
The interior of the Bergin’s building is divided into three public spaces: the tavern, a main dining area, and a private dining room. The defining feature of the tavern is the bar, described in the nomination as “a large, horseshoe-shaped cocktail bar that wraps around the room in a 360-degree configuration.” It is made of paneled wood, capped with copper, and has a metal foot rail around its base. The private dining room features a large brick fireplace. (And yes, it was functional. This writer remembers several lovely dinners eaten on chilly winter nights near the cozy fire.)
In general, according to the HCM application, both the interior and exterior of the building are largely intact, with only minor alterations over the years…most of them generally sensitive to the building’s original character.
Through the years, also according to the application, Bergin’s “became one of the city’s most iconic and beloved local businesses,” where “generations of Angelenos shared the common experience of patronizing the tavern, soaking in its weathered, hand-hewn interior, ordering a pint of Guinness or an Irish coffee, and decompressing and socializing amid a friendly, low-key setting.”
In addition to running his business, Bergin was also an avid horse racing fan, and the pub quickly became especially popular with racing and sports enthusiasts. It was also famous for its Irish Coffee, its huge St. Patrick’s Day celebrations (which attracted lines down the block and ran nearly all day), and it was even, at one point, the “off-field home base” for the Los Angeles Rams and their owner Dan Reeves, Sr., when the team first moved from Cleveland to L.A. The tavern had many other famous patrons, too…and regulars, both locals and celebrities, were honored with their names on cardboard shamrocks, pasted to the ceiling…where they remain today.
Through its more than 80 years in business, Tom Bergin’s has had only four sets of owners. Bergin himself ran it for the first 37 years. When he stepped down in 1973, two longtime customers – Mike Mandekic and T.K. Vodrey – took over. Mandekic retired in the late 1990s, and Vodrey stayed until 2011. That year, the business was sold to restaurateur Warner Ebbink and executive chef Brandon Boudet, who closed it for several months for a major remodel. The pub re-opened in 2012 with a “contemporary Irish menu” and new drink selections, but it did not attract enough customers to remain profitable. The pub closed in the summer of 2013, and was sold to actor and longtime patron Derek Schreck. Schreck re-opened Bergin’s in January, 2014, but it struggled during this period, too, and closed again this year. (Shreck still owns the property and has been notified of the landmark application, but has not yet commented on it, according to Hixon.)
According to the Hixon, the first step for the HCM application will be a hearing at the Cultural Heritage Commission, which has not yet been scheduled. If the CHC approves the nomination, it would then go to the City Council’s PLUM Committee for approval, and then, if approved, to the full City Council for a final vote. Hixon said the process typically takes about six months to complete, if everything goes smoothly.
For more information on the Tom Bergin’s landmark application, as well as more cultural context, history and photos, see the full nomination package at https://miraclemilela.files.wordpress.com/2018/09/tom-bergins-hcm-nomination.pdf There is also a new Facebook page, Friends of Tom Bergin’s (a.k.a. Save Bergin’s) for people who would like to support and track the preservation effort.