This article was featured in RVAMag #29: Summer 2017. You can read all of issue #29 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now. Common House has been open for a few months at the time of this posting.
In a building which was established as a social club within the boundaries of what was once Charlottesville’s vibrant and predominantly African-American community of Vinegar Hill, Josh Rogers and Ben Pfinsgraff are attempting to breathe new life in a way which honors the history of the area as a cultural hub but also nods to the future by representing the diversity of the larger Charlottesville community. Common House, as the renewed space is called, is a membership-based social club for creative people in art and commerce in the area. The club defines a “creative” person as anyone “who makes something” and states the belief that each individual is the most qualified person to define him or herself in this way, citing members who are artists, scientists, craftsmen, musicians, educators, and entrepreneurs. Rogers and Pfinsgraff, along with a third co-founder, Derek Sieg, hope to provide a forum for bonding these creative people and ideas in ways which will ultimately advance the Charlottesville community.
“Hopefully just having all those people together in one place, cool stuff will happen,” Pfinsgraff said. “Whether it’s just a conversation or a friendship or an art exhibit or a new mural or a startup, that’s all stuff that’s pushing this community forward.”
The club, which includes space for both public membership use and private events, promotes itself as being highly-curated in every aspect. The building encompasses a beautiful rooftop terrace with great mountain views, a library, a billiards room, and multiple rooms and halls for socializing, eating, drinking, and playing games. It also contains a communal co-work area, called Vinegar Hall, designated for laptop use during business hours, private events at night, and which includes a chef’s counter for watching food preparation. The club boasts “high end, low pretension” food and drinks available during all meals and hours of the day.
“The sole reason for everything we do here, whether it’s design here with the bar stools or whatever it is we do, is really just meant to attract a very diverse group of people and to bond them closer together as a community,” Rogers said. He says that the goal is not to artificially force members into making connections. “We’re just sort of like doing the thing, then standing back and welcoming people to the campfire and seeing what happens.”
In fact, the business was partially co-founded by way of the colliding of minds the three are hoping to foster with Common House. As Rogers, U.Va. alum and former successful creative director in New York City, initially worked on the concept and brand of the club, he and Sieg invited a small group of creative people to be the core of the membership. Among the charter member invitees was Pfinsgraff. Pfinsgraff, an alum of U.Va.’s Darden School of Business, hit it off with Rogers, recognized the potential for business in the plan for the club, and soon joined as the third partner. He found himself asking and answering questions about the potential business model in a way which was not already being done.
“Derek and Josh have very unique, creative backgrounds, and you know, Josh is a creative director and Derek is a filmmaker and writer, and Josh is a writer, as well. So obviously me as more of the business school finance operations guy, it was people who I had never really ever worked with before – definitely not this closely – and so I saw that as a unique opportunity,” Pfinsgraff said of the chance to combine his business skills with the other co-founders’ creative skills. “But for me, [I] was kind of a missing link to theirs. They had a great idea, but they didn’t know if it was a great idea,” he said.
Rogers’ and Sieg’s great idea came to them in stages, Rogers says. He and Sieg, another U.Va. graduate and a worldwide travel writer and filmmaker, were at one time both members at Soho House, which is a members-only creative club with locations in major cities across Europe and North America. While Sleg was a member in New York and Rogers in L.A., their experiences differed but the idea of a creative community with a clubhouse and programming for its members stuck with each of them. The two began looking at cities with a need in which they could start their own club and eventually landed on returning to Charlottesville to give it a shot over similar markets such as Charleston, South Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee. “All those people are here, but they don’t necessarily have a place to belong. So, we start seeing that kind of hole and market, and say ‘Okay, this place looks good,’” Rogers said.
Rogers admits that starting up the business in his hometown of Charlottesville came with challenges up front, especially with push back from some of the city planners. Some people did not understand the concept or did not want to support the idea at first due to their skepticism of the model or the repurposing of the building with such a specific past use as an African-American social club. “You know, Charlottesville is a unique place. I think there [are] barriers to entry and just starting a business in Charlottesville whether it’s the city or other aspects that make it difficult,” Rogers said. “But once you get over those hurdles, Charlottesville can be your biggest fan.”
In the end, however, Rogers and the other co-founders won over much of the area’s support when they took on the renovation of the historic Vinegar Hill building which included rebuilding the roof which had almost collapsed entirely. They have since won sustainability awards from the city for the renovation of the building, which would have otherwise been torn down, using the original materials to rebuild. Rogers says that now that the neighbors and the city have seen the boost in memberships and are happy with the building restoration, they are pleased with what has been done with the location which was most recently functioning as a yoga studio.
Once the building restoration was completed, the co-founders faced the challenge of finding a way to decorate such a large venue and still maintain the balance between what a commercial space requires, such as sprinklers, exit signs, and a full staff, while preserving the feel of a shared “home away from home” atmosphere for their members. They chose art from some local artists, such as Sharon Shapiro, and had help from an interior designer and several others to find the right nuances for the club. Pfinsgraff says that seeing the murals for the first time is especially a bit of a shock to the system and a source of awe upon entering the building and walking up the stairs, particularly for those like him who do not necessarily have a background in art. “So I think the trick to the art was to pick each one out and say, ‘Does that do it?’” Rogers said. “But I think the whole of it makes it feel like, in a way, there’s something in this house that you all want, and you want to share it together.”
Pfinsgraff feels that the interior designer Anne Tollet of Hanover Ave was especially crucial to the process of making the club feel less commercial. “For our space, we wanted to make it softer, to make it more homey for people working there every day, so it doesn’t just feel like an event space, and she’s helped with that,” he said.
Both Rogers and Pfinsgraff praise all of the people who came together to get the concept and building up and running as one of the first of many collective experiences to come within the walls of the club. “And that’s kind of the whole idea of Common House. It’s almost kind of hard to say when did it happen, or say who was sort of responsible for it, you just kind of get these people together and good things happen,” Rogers said.
The co-founders are excited to see the club open and bustling after so much hard work but cannot help but to reflect on how tough it can be to start up a business with the long hours, sleepless nights thinking about the company, and being exhausted at times. “Yeah, it’s like raising a baby. You can’t imagine your life without it, and you get these thrills which are euphoric and unlike anything else, but it’s hard as shit,” Rogers, who also likens the experience to the time he moved to New York City, said. “It was so draining and so rejuvenating. At the same time, you couldn’t imagine anything else. That’s definitely how I feel, just watching these first things happen, and it was just like, ‘Man, that’s exactly what we wanted to happen.’”
Common House, while distinguishing itself from traditional men’s clubs or country clubs by rejecting the idea of membership being limited to a certain type of person, does hark back to the pre-digital era by prohibiting phone and laptop use in the social areas in order to break down barriers between people and to promote natural conversation. For activities outside of daily socializing, the organization hosts the Common Knowledge Series, monthly interactive showcases and workshops through which craftsmen and artists can demonstrate their skills and expertise to members, as well as the Bridge Room Sessions concerts, which are stripped-down performances with no amps and little advance notice of who will be playing. There is also a Movie Night each month with a showing of an unannounced classic or unreleased film with only a themed cocktail in advance as a hint for which movie may be presented that night.
For the co-founders, the thrill since their grand opening in May has not yet worn off. Pfinsgraff says he has recently seen, on just one day, the chairman of the Arts Council meeting with a local nonprofit, an entrepreneur meeting with staff planning local family offices, and the co-work hall filling up more than the day before as new start-ups begin their planning and development at the club. Both he and Rogers find it very exciting to witness the day-to-day activities there spreading to the surrounding community after talking about the idea for at least the past two years. “There’s like the microcosmic idea of this place and the membership, and then there’s the community at large, and we want them to be connected I think in terms of [the] Common House community,” Rogers said.
The good news for the Richmond area is that the co-founders are also excited at the prospect of expanding Common House to other secondary and tertiary markets in the southeast similar to Charlottesville, including Richmond, which they are currently looking at and in which they are narrowing down options for a club location. “I think the next one in Richmond is going to be much bigger than Charlottesville,” Rogers said.
Pfinsgraff says he believes the change in cities like Richmond, Nashville, Durham, New Orleans, and Charleston have been incredible in recent years with the influx of young people. “We want to be there waiting as this young generation continues to move to these secondary and tertiary markets, primarily [in] the south, and that are living in the cities,” he said. He believes the millennials moving to these areas do not want to give up on living in cities and move to the suburbs just because they are not living in larger markets like New York City. “They want to be [in the city] to belong, to engage,” he said.
“New things will happen, you know? New ideas will happen, new relationships will happen, new things will happen that in some ways we can’t totally predict, and we’ll move this whole community forward,” Rogers said. “That’s what kind of gives us chills about this place and this town, and then being able to do that in other places.”
For more information on the club and how to become a member (they even have an out-of-town membership option), visit their website at www.commonhouse.com.
Written by Jill Smith, Interview by R. Anthony Harris
Photographers Brandon Bishop and Landon Nordeman contributed to this article.