It was blockbuster news last week when word finally got out that Soho House is planning to open a new location on the Lower East Side. But there were lots of unanswered questions after a liquor license application was briefly listed on Community Board 3’s March meeting agenda before being crossed out later in the day. So last Thursday we made the trip to Soho House’s first and, for the moment, only New York location, in the Meatpacking District, to find out more about the private club’s plans for a former funeral home at 139 Ludlow St.
We were invited by Rachel Smith, Soho House’s New York membership manager. After meeting us in the lobby of the converted warehouse building on 9th Avenue, we were escorted to the plush restaurant and bar area, which was bustling at 4:30 in the afternoon. Seated in large vintage chairs around a table in one corner of the opulent room, Smith chatted with us not only about the developing Lower East Side plans but about Soho House’s broader mission as a refuge for the city’s creative class.
On the LES, the company is, in fact, planning a smaller members only club inside 139 Ludlow, which used to be the Nieberg Funeral Home. There will be no rooftop swimming pool or hotel rooms, both features of the Meatpacking District location. Plans call for a restaurant and bar, as well as a retro gym (think jump rope and bocce ball). The original intention was to make a pitch to CB3’s “State Liquor Authority” committee this month, but they’re now aiming for April. Scheduling conflicts and a desire to conduct more neighborhood outreach apparently prompted the delay.
Pretty much everyone is in agreement that the arrival of Soho House on the LES is big deal, the ultimate indication (as if we needed one) that the once rough-around-the-edges neighborhood is becoming a playground for the rich and fabulous. The past few weeks we witnessed the demise of Pink Pony and Motor City, two of “the last bastions of bohemia” on Ludlow Street. In truth, Soho House’s presence is not going to be the deciding factor in the gentrification of this part of the Lower East Side. The new hotel at 180 Ludlow St., just a block away, will be open in a matter of weeks, a happening that will largely complete the transformation of Ludlow into an upscale destination. But for a lot of people, the arrival of a private club frequented by Hollywood stars and other A-list guests is seen as a sign of something significant.
During our conversation, Smith acknowledged this dynamic, but at the same time, she argued that Soho House is widely misunderstood. On its web site, the business is described as a “private members’ club for those in film, media and creative industries.” The original London club has nine satellite locations throughout the world, and following its purchase by billionaire Ron Burkle, is undergoing international expansion. The Meatpacking District location, unlike hot spots in LA and Miami, has struggled, as the New York Times put it last year, “to settle into its identity in a (New York) night-life scene that has become more laid-back and roughhewn.” CEO Nick Jones famously purged the membership roles of too many bankers and other dull corporate types, even banning suits in the dining room. In recent months, Smith said, Soho House has returned to its roots, admitting an interesting collection of creative people, injecting new energy into the decade-old Manhattan club.
Smith, who’s very much part of the Chelsea art scene, has only been at Soho House for a year or two. She was a skeptic when first approached about working for the club but was quickly won over and now sees it as an important part of the art world social dynamic. Soho House may have gained a reputation back in the day for its “raucous rooftop pool parties,” but Smith said the focus for a lot of members is on relaxation and engagement, especially during the daytime hours; the club is a place where they can come for lunch, hold meetings, unwind. It’s not that there aren’t many high profile evening events, including fundraisers, art shows, movie screenings and, yes, star-studded parties. But Soho House is hardly seeking to join the “douchey/fratty” Lower East Side nightlife scene; you’re not going to see a new rope line outside 139 Ludlow St. Instead, Smith indicated, the club was attracted to the neighborhood, because increasingly its young, creative members live and work in this area, and it made sense to open a location closer to them.
There’s no getting around the fact, however, that Soho House is exclusive. The very idea of a private club will, no doubt be off-putting to some neighbors and members of the community board. What’s more, the Ludlow Street building is located in what CB3 has deemed to be an area “over saturated” with liquor licenses. The board will require Soho House to prove a “public benefit or strong support from residents living in the immediate area.” Smith has been working hard to win over the neighborhood. Representatives from the Lower East Side BID have been briefed on the Ludlow Street plans, as have some longtime residents such as documentarian and photographer Clayton Patterson.
Patterson is not shy about speaking out about gentrification on the Lower East Side and about CB3’s liquor license policies. He’s also been known to embrace new people and brands on the LES, especially when they’ve made efforts to reach out (case in point: John Varvatos on the Bowery). Yesterday, Patterson told us he was inclined to endorse Soho House after hearing about their plans to support the arts community (Patterson is thinking about displaying some of his photos at the West Side location). “You can’t be against everything,” he said. Noting that Soho House waives its membership fee ($1800-2400 annually) for artists unable to pay, he argued that the club could be a positive influence in the neighborhood.
It remains to be seen whether real opposition will emerge before the Soho House application is heard later in the spring. But it’s apparent Soho House is determined to engage directly with its potential new neighbors. It will be fascinating to see how people react.