New social club in Richmond hopes to capitalize on a growing desire for people to come together.
by KATHERINE HAFNER | photography by ADAM EWING
Your impression of Common House social club might depend on where you’re standing in it. The library, with its built-in bookshelves and double-sided fireplace, is so comfortable you’ll want a cardigan and a cocktail. The coworking space, meanwhile, will put you in the right mind for business. And if you venture down the spiral staircase to the underground wine cellar, you just might feel cultured enough to ask for a Bordeaux by name.
This new wave social club, designed to attract young creatives wary of elite memberships, opened in Richmond in the fall. It may sound like an odd time for such a business, social distancing guidelines and all. But Common House founders Derek Sieg and Ben Pfinsgraff say the pandemic has emphasized why having a place for connection is important.
Common House is not meant to resemble the old style of members-only spaces, where stodgy old men made backroom deals over cigars and brandy. Sieg and Pfinsgraff say they wanted to offer a place that felt fresh and welcoming. Anyone can apply, and diversity is part of the founders’ mission. “A home away from home is the quality we’re going for,” says Sieg, 45.
The concept was born when he moved home to Charlottesville from Los Angeles. Sieg, an indie filmmaker, began helping a friend make a documentary about the card game, bridge. He became fascinated by how the once-ubiquitous pastime had fallen out of fashion.
Soon he was interested more generally in the decline of spaces that hold together a community’s fabric. He says he got excited about the prospect of opening a club “to help build social capital.”
Sieg says he’d been a member of a social club in L.A. but felt it was too exclusive. He joined forces with Pfinsgraff, a former Phillies baseball player and hedge fund manager, who signed on to help with the finances. The pair opened the first Common House in Charlottesville in 2017. A third location in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is set to open this spring.
Pfinsgraff, 37, says they try to make the club comfortable for anyone, “whether you’re a barista or a billionaire.” But the average member pays about $100 per month and is in their mid- 30s.
The new location is fairly hidden. From the street, there’s little indication of a social club. The front window has a sign for Birdie’s, a 27-seat oyster bar that will eventually serve as the club’s public face, says Chauncey Jenkins, general manager.
Jenkins gave me a tour on a rainy January afternoon. He lit up when talking about a pandemic-free future, when anyone – member or not – will be able to wander into Birdie’s, the adjoining cafe or the wine cellar, which doubles as a retail wine shop. At the moment, though, the club is focused on its members-only offerings, which are extensive.
The building that houses the club’s six floors – including roof and basement – is 30,000 square feet and sits a few blocks away from the popular boutique Quirk Hotel. The hotel’s owners, Ted and Katie Ukrop, are partners in Common House.
Walking through the club, you’ll find lots of mid-century modern style notes: wood, leather, muted tones. Think Mad Men, Jenkins says.
Much of the art is local, including funky wallpaper that pays homage to Richmond’s musical history. It provides the backdrop to a set of built-in telephone booths. The artist behind it, Naomi McCavitt of Richmond’s Thicket Design, also made a mural stretching multiple stories in the stairwell.
There are plenty of fun aspects to Common House: a private screening room, a rooftop pool with a killer view of the city, conference room tables that double for ping pong. Eventually the club will host live music and speakers.
But overall, it’s having space itself that’s the point. You can rent a private office or use the coworking area, complete with a free coffee bar, something that draws in everyone from artists to lobbyists. There’s even a podcast studio, for the audio-inclined.
The liveliest space, though, and core to the concept, is the fourth floor, flanked by the library lounge on one end and restaurant at the other.
It was brunchtime when I visited, and I was in for a treat. The chef recommended the eggs Benedict and I happily obliged. The dish did not disappoint, with a pickled chili radish just spicy enough for my palate. I also sampled the sweet and savory French toast, deliciously soft and balanced by citrus and herbs.
Jenkins is a Richmond native, and comes to Common House after years in the hospitality industry, including nine years at the Jefferson Hotel in almost every capacity.
Gesturing around the library lounge, which is centered by a double-sided fireplace surrounded by chairs and couches open for mingling, Jenkins says he’s enthralled by the way Common House can open up access to people of all walks of life. It’s easier to meet someone’s chief of staff over drinks rather than calling them up to try and arrange a meeting, he says.
“If you casually meet someone, you’re talking in a way where that barrier to entry is already broken,” he says. “You can choose to kind of stay in your own silo. But a place like this … you have a place where folks can have diversity of thought, challenge each other, help each other grow and become more passionate about something.”