The intriguing story of Soho House
The members-only social club that began in London and has since branched into the US and Germany is set to open in Istanbul this month in a location steeped in intrigue.
Espionage at the Palazzo
The 19th century mansion, the Palazzo Corpi, was built as a residence for a wealthy shipbuilder, before housing the US Embassy for 100 years, until 2003. During this time the building was the centre of intrigue, espionage, secret deals - and even a ghost.
In the days before security became an obsession, diplomats and secret agents moved freely in and out of the building and around the neighbourhood, mingling with locals and meeting contacts. Spies met their contacts at the bar across the street, political heavyweights dropped by for quiet tete-a-tetes with local reporters and James Bond-worthy cocktail parties and celebrations were held each night.
A ghost was rumoured to haunt the mansion - the mistress of a Genoese magnate. She’s said to still walk the halls in the wee hours.
Those days are long gone, but the mansion's quiet opulence and grandeur mean it retains its intriguing past.
Twelve years ago, mindful of the terrorist threat engendered by 911, the embassy moved to a new, heavily fortified location on the outskirts of Istanbul. The Palazzo Corpi remained in American hands. The question of what to do with the beautiful building remained up in the air until recently when, prompted by the necessity for income for its substantial upkeep, the American government leased the building to Soho House and its Turkish partner, Bilgili Holding.
More than US$110 million has been ploughed into the project, which has seen the exterior walls come down and a new luxury hotel built alongside the building.
The interior has been restored to its former grandeur - including the uncovering of the beautiful ceiling murals depicting naked goddesses, painted over years ago by a former ambassador’s wife who deemed the paintings indecent.
Inside, late 19th century furnishings rub shoulders with mid century modern furniture, in a pleasing mishmash of eras. Old chesterfields and vintage chairs provide comfortable places to relax amidst the understated opulence.
The Beyoglu building retains its Italian frescos and marble floors - but has a distinctly Turkish feel. The exception is the Embassy Club, decorated with dark oak panels, leather club chairs and deep sofas, like a comfortable East Coast speakeasy. This will become Soho House’s late-night space, a place to chill out and listen to music into the wee hours.
A rooftop pool, with sunbeds that look out onto the Golden Horn and the colourful minarets, is a welcome modern touch.
Members have a choice of 87 bedrooms, can dine in the restaurant and visit the spa and two Turkish baths. Although they’ll be forced to mix with the great unwashed in the hammams, which, like all of the city’s hammams, will be open to the public.
Being an exclusive club, not just anyone can walk through the doors of the Palazzo Corpi as a member. A committee reviews applications and gives the final yes or no. Members comprise of every profession, from actors to wealthy bankers.
Soho House founder and creative executive Nick Jones says that the “creative soul” of Istanbul is crucial to the club’s ethos. “The struggling scriptwriter is still one of our favourite members.”
But members of Soho House can’t pretend to be anything other than elite, when all is said and done. The club embodies a separateness from society, an atmosphere of a world long gone.
The good news, however, is that non members can stay at Soho House. Call or fill in a request form on the website to ask about prices and availability.