Future in common: New downtown social club returns to its roots

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Social Hall, the anchor space of Common House located on the second floor, features an eclectic array of seating for mingling. Photo: Andrea Hubbell Social Hall, the anchor space of Common House located on the second floor, features an eclectic array of seating for mingling. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Before they could build a place to bring people together, the founders of Common House had to keep it from falling apart.

Five years ago, longtime friends Josh Rogers, a creative director, and Derek Sieg, a filmmaker, returned to their hometown with a desire to help people in Charlottesville’s burgeoning creative community connect. “People are here,” Rogers says, “but they don’t have anywhere to belong.”

They found an ideal spot—the former Mentor Lodge, originally an African-American social club, at 206 W. Market St.—close to the Downtown Mall, but “just slightly off the beaten path,” Rogers says. Ben Pfinsgraff, former general manager at Clifton Inn, joined them as co-founder, and they enlisted architect Dave Ackerman of local architecture firm Wolf Ackerman to rebuild the space. By late January 2016, they were ready to start construction. Enter: Winter Storm Jonas.

Under thousands of pounds of melting snow, the building’s roof collapsed, “sagging like a water balloon,” Ackerman says. To keep that weight from pulling down the interior walls, his crews had to cut the roof’s remaining rubber membrane, soaking the interior.

The library offers Chesterfield sofas for relaxing and billiards for gaming. Photo: Andrea Hubbell
The library offers Chesterfield sofas for relaxing and billiards for gaming. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

“We didn’t have a roof for months,” Pfinsgraff says. “Everything on the interior just got destroyed.” Insurance covered the damage, but “we lost a few years at the end of our lives.”

Rather than raze the building, the co-founders tore down half of it—then salvaged and cleaned every brick and usable plank of 100-year-old heart-pine wall sheathing. The former went back into the wall. The latter became herringbone flooring, tables and other features in the renovated space.

Reconstruction added 2,500 new square feet to Common House’s existing 5,000, making room for a rooftop terrace and a full kitchen serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Common House opened May 17 with roughly 300 of a planned 500 total members on board. Successful applicants can enjoy the club’s amenities, which include regular concerts, lectures and movie screenings, plus Saturday summertime swimming at the Blue Ridge Swim Club.

Outside Vinegar Hall on the ground floor—a members-only co-working space by day, event hall by night—cell phones and computers aren’t permitted, to encourage members to unplug and strike up conversations. The second floor includes a bright, airy tea room and a double-sided wood-burning hearth that provides a faint, pleasant whiff of smoke. The bar, clad in marble and charred wood, shares a clandestine hatch—for discreet food and drink service—with the adjoining Bridge Room. When it’s not a stage for in-house concerts, members can book this small, semi-private space for meetings, board games or LP listening sessions on a vintage hi-fi cabinet with all-new electronics inside. A billiards table, private library and diverse display of local and regional art round out the eclectic, earth-toned space. A central staircase connects all three floors and “borrows light for the center of the building” from the rooftop, Ackerman says.

The roof terrace includes its own bar, a cabana shaded with solar panels that will provide roughly 20 percent of the building’s annual energy needs and a clever oil-derrick sculpture to support and protect the chimney for the hearth below. Neither bar has stools, deliberately. “We don’t want you to post up here and close yourself off,” Pfinsgraff says. “We want you to open yourself up to the club, meet some new people.”

The co-founders hope that Common House will bring members into new social circles and help them make new friends. “We all have the powerful desire to belong, and to connect with other people,” Sieg says.

Now that the challenge of construction is over, Ackerman—a member himself—says he’s particularly looking forward to hanging out on the roof he helped rebuild. Common House “is a neat, kind of quirky collection of things,” he says, “and I think that’s what they hope their membership will be.”

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