Common House

Interview by Thomas Hendricks
Issue 51 • May 2017 • Charlottesville

More than just a swanky building renovation, this forward-thinking take on the social club is all about meeting interesting people who want to meet you.

This isn’t your father’s social club. Common House seeks to foster an open-minded environment for the creative and the eager, and with over 250 members so far, they’re well on their way. The first of its kind in Charlottesville, the vibe of the whole affair is decidedly casual—think neighborhood hangout, not country club retreat. After years of operating in stealth mode, Common House is ready to host its grand opening on Wednesday, May 17.

“The whole idea behind Common House was the realization that creative people didn’t have to live in major markets,” said Josh Rogers, Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer. He and fellow Co-Founder Derek Sieg grew up together in Charlottesville. After college, the two left home to pursue their careers, Rogers to New York for advertising and Sieg to Los Angeles for directing. Years later, as their priorities changed, the two began brainstorming an idea for creative communal space, but the astronomical rent in those cities made it seem impossible to pursue.

When both returned to live in Charlottesville once again, Rogers and Sieg teamed up with Ben Pfinsgraff, Co-Founder number three and Chief Operations Officer, to build something where the price per square foot was a little more reasonable. Their homecoming venture is not an isolated incident. The more people get priced out of the largest metropolitan areas, the more appealing smaller cities have become to artists and entrepreneurs alike. In Virginia, this trend has contributed to the rise of cities like Richmond and Charlottesville as creative cultural centers. The same dynamic can been seen in the right-sized cities of neighboring states like Asheville, NC and Nashville, TN.

Common House addresses the importance of “third spaces” in everyday life. With home as the first and work as the second, people crave a third space that isn’t as fundamentally functional. The project’s goal is to serve as an unencumbered meeting ground where people can hang out and interact with cool people. Their model includes more stake in ownership than many other third spaces. In a coffee shop, for instance, you may wonder how long you’re allowed to stick around after finishing your cup. But as Rogers explained, “When you pay dues to a place, you feel good about staying there as long as you want.”

The club is situated at 206 W. Market Street, just one block away from the Downtown Mall. The 4,700-square-foot building was constructed in 1913 and once served as a gathering place for the Vinegar Hill neighborhood. Despite the old brick building having great bones, there were some unexpected setbacks during construction. In January 2016, the roof collapsed under the weight of more than 13 inches of heavy snow. Crews worked brick-by-brick to restore the building to its original state.

With a curatorial eye, the Common House team have been working to remodel the historic building with an eclectic mix of old and new. The interior is designed to strike just the right balance of clean lines and warm wood. “Aesthetically, we want humanity to come out,” explained Rogers. And from the exposed brick to the hand-laid tile to the repurposed herringbone floors, the iron, the glass, the murals, the rich leather and heavy brass keys—every square inch excudes said humanity. The back bar will feature shou sugi ban wood paneling, a technique where cedar planks are pickled then charred to produce a matte black, almost reptilian texture. Despite such attention to detail, the directors are quick to say that this is not just some grand interior design project. As Rogers said, “The main reason why people are joining is not because we have some awesome Japanese charred cedar on our back bar. They’re joining because of the community.” Just as a chair is only complete when sat in, the impressive aesthetics of Common House are only as good as the environment they foster.

In addition to the color pallets and mood boards, Common House has engineered the room flow to maximize interaction. For example, there are bars, but no barstools. Why assume the typical turtle shell posture on a barstool when you could be playing pool or thumbing through records? Common House also imposes an unconventional rule on technology: no phones are allowed past the first floor. If you’ve ever pretended to text while nervous at a party, then you know the point of this somewhat extreme measure. “It’s liberating when you don’t have any of those crutches and no one else does either,” said Rogers.

The purpose of these machinations, of course, is for members to meet other members. Not in a campy, name game, icebreaker kind of way, but through the natural flow of sharing an inviting space together. Rogers continued, “Everything that we do is invested in making that interaction more likely and more enriching for people. And you never know, when someone meets someone, a new business, or a new relationship, or a new art project could naturally develop. We just want to make that as possible as possible.”

Unlike traditional social clubs, Common House is a way to engage with the community, not shield yourself from it. “A lot of country clubs are created so that you can wall yourself off from the community and be with more people who look like you,” claimed Rogers. Instead, Common House is looking for members who are excited about the project’s goals of openness and the cross pollination of ideas. With a free form application, the initiation process is more about who you want to meet rather than who you already know. “We’ve had very few instances where people want to join to have it as a notch on their belt as a status symbol,” Rogers shared. “It’s pretty easy to tell when they do.”

The burning question is, how much does it cost? In making their decision, the Common House founders were careful to keep membership dues within the range of artist types, siding closer in cost to an athletic gym than a golf resort. These fees provide access to more than just a fancy brass key. Membership perks include access to intimate pop-up concerts called the Bridge Room Sessions, a workshop series led by local artisans called the Common Knowledge Series, and occasional movie nights, plus usage rights to facilities like the co-working space, rooftop terrace, and more.

Just like any other entrepreneurial venture, Common House is an ongoing experiment, one that is just about to enter its public phase. However, through years of word-of-mouth promotion, determined renovation efforts, and carefully curated offerings, this trio of founders has garnered a long list of eager members waiting for the chance to put it through its paces. All that remains to be seen is what kind of new ventures will be dreamed up by the community fostered within its walls.

Common House will host its grand opening on Wednesday, May 17. To learn more, visit commonhouse.com.

Photography by Tristan Williams

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