Clubs have always existed. Ever since the Garden of Eden (a club of two), like-minded people have sought each other out, whether to share ideas, interests and political affinities or simply – sometimes principally – to get up to no good.
But members’ clubs first became a “thing”in 18th-century London. The city then wasn’t full of hotels and restaurants, so gentlemen coming into town from their country seats needed places to convene, dine and most likely gamble and mess about with mistresses. White’s was the first, founded in 1693 on Chesterfield Street, where an Italian immigrant called Francesco Bianco had opened a hot-chocolate shop, Mrs White’s Chocolate House. It soon became a spot where gentlemen got stuck into heavy drinking and gambling. In 1778, the club moved to an impressive James Wyatt-attributed building on St James’s Street, where it still stands today, and the tales are the stuff of legend: the time in 1816 when Lord Alvanley bet £3,000 (a lot now, a fortune back then) on which of two raindrops would slide fastest down the bow window; or the night in 1981 when Prince Charles held his stag night on the premises.
Where White’s trailblazed, others followed, and joining clubs became a symbol of status. The Garrick attracted theatre luvvies and members of the legal profession; The East India was for visiting expats; the Turf Club for horseracing enthusiasts; The Carlton for those of a conservative bent; and the Reform Club for liberals. St James’s, where most were located, became known as Clubland, and at their height in 1900 there were around 100 of these prestigious venues in London. Social pariahs who couldn’t make the cut anywhere were deemed “unclubbable”, a term believed to have been coined by Dr Samuel Johnson, and the ultimate fear was to be “blackballed” by having your membership rejected.
Today, in a world heaving with hotels and restaurants, the question is whether the members’ club, with all its rules and restrictions and foibles, is still relevant? The answer, according to political scientist Robert Putnam, is a resounding yes. His book Bowling Alone highlights a parallel with the “collapse” of American community, in that while more Americans are bowling than ever before, they are not bowling in leagues. “membership”, whether of a choral society or a football club, has always been the sign of a successful community.
One man who appears to agree with this is Nick Jones, founder and CEO of Soho House, who established his first club in 1995 above Café Bohème on Soho’s Greek Street as a meeting place for people in the film, media and creative industries. Despite some intimations to the contrary, Jones’ laid-back permutation of the club model for a tieless generation wasn’t a two-fingered response to the elite addresses lining St James’s. “It wasn’t borne out of rebellion,” says Jones sunnily over the phone from the Soho Beach House in Miami, “but out of need. We all like to be surrounded by like-minded people, and at Soho House it’s not just about the spaces: we’ve put gymnasiums into them and there are clubs within clubs and a members’ events programme.” He adds, “And at £1,400 a year [for Every House membership], it’s cheaper than many gym memberships.” Twenty years in, membership of Soho House is still highly coveted, with five Houses in London and others cannily positioned across the globe, including New York, Miami, LA, Chicago, Berlin and Toronto, encompassing 28 restaurants and a Cowshed brand of beauty products.
In March this year, Jones opened his 13th House, Soho House Istanbul in Beyoglu, the beating creative heart of the city; it comprises a club with 87 hotel rooms (€178.20) for members and non-members, spread across four buildings surrounding an open garden. Of the buildings, two of which are purpose built, the most significant is the Corpi, erected in 1873 by an Italian shipowner, but better known for its role as the US embassy and consulate since 1906, with a rumoured secret floor reserved for the CIA. The original frescoes have been painstakingly restored, the Carrara marble floors polished up and, to temper the grandness of the building, a collection of midcentury furniture has been installed by the group’s in-house design team. Alongside an outpost of London’s Cecconi’s restaurant (yes, Jones owns that too) is a meze bar called The Allis, an exclusive Mandolin Terrace for members, a 49-seat (velvet-upholstered-armchair) screening room and two rooftop pools overlooking the Golden Horn. “We’ve gone very Istanbulian,” says Jones of the interior design. “But wherever we go, the Soho House Britishness comes through in subtle ways. You’re not going to find a Union Jack sofa, but there are leather club chairs, staff dressed in similar style, and in the bar there’s cut glass and old-fashioned clubby drinks.”
The other very British element – and perhaps the only feature Jones’ group shares with the gentlemen’s clubs of St James’s – is the still-stringent approach to membership. In a recent article in The Hollywood Reporter, Soho House’s former LA membership director Tim Geary revealed that Kim Kardashian “has unsuccessfully tried numerous times”. It remains true that no matter how famous or fancy, you can’t buy your way into Soho House. The membership drill goes thus: each applicant has to be proposed and seconded by existing members, fill out a five-page questionnaire (including a very 21st-century and, for some, quite excruciating section entitled “Why You?”), then be accepted by the committee for their local House. But despite numerous hurdles and tripwires, the Sherlockian team led in the UK by membership directors Tom Russell and Bernice Coyle regularly unearth phoney applications, with people lying about their “creative” jobs and, in one more severe case, actual identity theft.
It was with the 1998 debut of Babington House, the group’s Somerset country-house redoubt, that Soho House began offering bedrooms to non-members. Members are given 25 per cent discount and their friends and family 15 per cent, but, for the first time, muggles or even (whisper it) the bankers Soho House endeavoured so valiantly to keep out could simply book a bedroom. Today, “we’re fortunate that the majority of non-members booking rooms are aware of what Soho House stands for as a members’ club and are respectful of the home-from-home atmosphere we’re trying to create in our Houses,” Russell explains.
To Jones, getting the right mix of the two categories is crucial. Membership is the backbone of the business and still based in exclusivity: lose the club’s essential creative-class ethos and lose Soho House. “Our favourite member is still the struggling screenwriter sipping a glass of tap water,” he chuckles. And if the mix is off, they do something about it: when Soho House in New York’s Meatpacking District got a little over-suited and briefcased, the membership was given a good clean up, sometimes known as “The Great Purge of 2009”. The 9th Avenue House is now reportedly back to open‑necked, laid-back form.
Hot on the heels of Istanbul comes the group’s equally buzzy second country House, debuting this month. Soho Farmhouse, in Great Tew, Oxfordshire (just 90 minutes from London), gives Jones 100 acres of rolling Cotswolds countryside to play with. Most of the 40 accommodations (from £250, excluding breakfast) are wood cabins, strewn along the banks of a lake and stream; others are in an 18th-century seven-bedroom converted farmhouse. Members will find floodlit tennis courts, bicycles, a fully equipped gym and spinning studio, horses and top-notch stables, a Cowshed Relax Spa and, in winter, a skating rink. For the little ones, there’s a Teeny Barn and Camp. And rounding off the modern bucolic fantasy, there’s the Boathouse – an indoor/outdoor pool in a lake.
Meanwhile, back in London, another rather exclusive club has been busy selecting sheets and making up beds. The Arts Club on Dover Street, which was founded in 1863 and whose members have included Charles Dickens, James Whistler and Auguste Rodin, has reappropriated three high-ceilinged Georgian floors of offices above the club to create 16 bedrooms, which opened last month. “Our members were always asking for rooms,” explains executive director Alice Chadwyck-Healey. The point of staying at a club, rather than a hotel, is, of course, the added level of intimacy and personalised staff attention. The bedrooms have been designed by David d’Almada, who also designed the main members’ rooms when the club relaunched in 2011 under the new ownership of Gary Landesberg and Arjun Waney. (D’Almada’s company, Sagrada, also recently completed The Norman hotel in Tel Aviv.) “We wanted them to feel organic and like an extension of the club and of our members’ homes,” says Chadwyck-Healey. “It should be like staying at home, but better.” The 35sq m rooms and 100sq m suites feature embossed leather headboards, petrol-blue cashmere walls, Jacques Adnet lighting, Giò Ponti furniture and artworks sourced from all over the world – building on the club’s formidable collection, which includes works by Rebecca Warren and George Condo. The hexagonal-tiled Carrara marble bathrooms have deco-inspired frosted-glass and bronze doors; the freestanding claw-foot bathtubs are decorated with the club’s crest. Some of the bigger suites have terraces overlooking the club’s pretty garden at the back of the building. On the top floor, among the eaves, is a self-contained apartment suite, with its own kitchen and living room, spanning the entire depth of the building and with a private staircase to its own rooftop garden.
But The Arts Club is adamant it has not opened a hotel. “We’re a members’ club with rooms,” says Chadwyck-Healey. “Members can book rooms for themselves or their guests, and are responsible for their guests’ conduct – and for settling the bill.” At an expected cost of £450 per night, on top of the £2,000 joining fee and £2,000 annual dues, the rooms will no doubt be attracting patrons of the arts rather than struggling artists themselves. Meanwhile, with such a flourishing international membership base, it may not be long before The Arts Club has a crack at the US market. One thing is certain: if the 24-hour room service on offer is anything as good as the club’s restaurant menus, it will be worth calling in a favour just for the breakfast in bed: FYI, co-owner Waney is one of London’s most successful restaurant creators, whose stable includes La Petite Maison, Zuma, Roka and Coya.
A possibly less glittering yet more affordable kip is available to members and non-members alike at The Hospital Club in Covent Garden, which debuted 15 new bedrooms in January (from £180 for non-members; 20 per cent discount for members and 10 per cent for friends and family). This den of creativity, complete with a basement TV studio, was founded in 2004 by Microsoft’s Paul Allen and Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, and employed quirky, detail-driven interior designer Russell Sage to convert the third-floor offices into bedrooms. Leather belts cover the doors, a bespoke psychedelic carpet spans the corridor and casts of old-school medical receptacles perch upon shelves. There are several suites with terraces and sitting rooms, while the smallest room is a windowless bunker (for members who don’t suffer excessively from claustrophobia, it’s the ultimate status crash pad). Each room has been dusted with Hospital Club magic, with finishing touches by different artists associated with the club – such as a suite that features Alyson Mowat’s faceted terrariums. Members can expect other original flourishes, including a turndown cocktail trolley and, in lieu of the traditional chocolate on the pillow, a macaroon and a School of Life “inspirational” card – presumably to encourage innovative pillow talk or ambitious dreams.
It seems to be then that contemporary members’ clubs have carved themselves an appropriately contemporary niche. But the dedication of the staff from the old gentlemen’s clubs might still trump them all: when one particular rabble-rousing Turf Club member went to live in Los Angeles, Mr Grace, the club’s legendary hall porter, would allegedly call him daily at 6pm GMT (10am PST), let the phone ring five times, then hang up. It was the signature rascal member’s wake-up call, delivered faithfully all the way from his London club.