Back in 2020, the Oregonian noticed something: Benjamin Weprin, once described as a “brotelier” by the New York Times, had purchased a full city block in Buckman. Weprin is the man behind Soho House Chicago, a location of the ultra-luxe, multi-city “members club” with amenities like private pools, restaurants, and saunas. Soho House memberships can cost thousands of dollars annually. Portland is a city that is allergic to restaurant dress codes. At the time, the overall reaction was, “Wait, what?”
I’ll be honest, I didn’t think they’d actually go through with it. Maybe it was the constant negative press about Portland as a city, or the incessant non-Portlanders in our Twitter replies asking why anyone would want to live here. I thought, “Portland will recede back into a level of comfortable obscurity, as we’ve always liked it.” But I felt similarly about the local Ritz-Carlton development — and we know how wrong I was on that front.
Here we are, three years later, and Soho House has announced its projected opening, by the end of 2023. Robb Report says the first Pacific Northwest location of Soho House will feature a restaurant, a two-story gym, a rooftop pool (in the third-rainiest city in the country), steam and sauna rooms, studios, and a music room that will also have a performance space for private events. They’re now letting people “register their interest,” because of course, you still need to be accepted into Soho House — the thousands of dollars you’ll spend to be there isn’t enough.
So my immediate thought is, “Who is this for?” The median household income for an Oregonian between 2017 and 2021 was around $70,000. In Portland, it’s only marginally higher, around $78,000. Oregon is the 27th richest state in the country — we’re in the bottom half. Sure, there’s a good amount of Intel and Nike money around here, but is there really enough to justify a multi-million-dollar investment in a TikTok generation’s country club?
Maybe I should be less surprised. Knot Springs — the social club, wellness center, and gym overlooking the Willamette in Industrial Northeast — successfully attracts swaths of exorbitantly wealthy 30somethings willing to pay up to $500 each month to sit in a 47-degree pool after sweating their overpriced salads off in a steam room with seasonal scent blends. And you know what? I’ve sat in that steam room. It’s delightful. I understand why people do it. I’m going back for my birthday. And there’s still something that feels very Portland about a social club centered on alternative wellness.
But even the Ritz-Carlton went out of its way to make sure it still felt Portland-y. The uproar surrounding the hotel’s arrival in the city — displacing a beloved food cart pod — instigated the owners to put in an elaborate food hall that specifically hosted Portland-based, BIPOC-owned businesses on its ground floor. And ultimately, I, a mere plebe with a five-figure salary, can still visit that food hall and eat a taco.
Here is the thing: Rich people in Portland abhor being perceived as rich. Go to the most expensive restaurants in Portland — Nodoguro, Janken — and no one there is wearing a suit. It still feels odd to see someone in a dress. The affluent in Portland are still spending their weekends in hiking boots — they’re just wearing Monclers as opposed to something scrounged for at the Binz or in the Next Adventure bargain basement. Are these people who would spend thousands of dollars to take dates to an exclusive clubhouse going to be successful in impressing said dates?
Ultimately, the likely rationale for a Soho House Portland has to do with the club’s self-described identity. Soho House doesn’t want to be populated by Wolf of Wall Street wannabes; it wants to be populated by people who describe themselves as “creatives” (is that better?). “Kim Kardashian and the Real Housewives are in the same category as lawyers and hedge fund managers, as former membership director Tim Geary told the Hollywood Reporter — both lacking in the je ne sais quoi that deems one worthy of Soho House,” Eater’s Monica Burton wrote in 2017. Soho House won’t accept just anyone; it wants the right flavor of person, one that help strike the club’s balance of Harvard final club and Andy Warhol’s Factory. Portland remains a city filled with intelligent, interesting, creative people — but they don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to find each other. A neighborhood block party still works just fine.
Maybe I’m wrong. Soho House has successfully thrown events for its “Cities Without Houses” members (members of Soho House’s club community without a brick-and-mortar location in their city) in Portland since 2017. In an interview with KOIN, founder Nick Jones specifically emphasized that Portland’s creative community informed their decision to expand here. “Taking Soho House to new cities has always been about finding places around the world that represent an authentic and unique creative scene,” Jones said. “We’ve been humbled to be part of Portland for over six years… During that time, we’ve learned and experienced the best of the city’s culinary talent and thriving arts and film industries.” And who knows, maybe they have plans up their sleeves to make Soho House Portland feel “Portland-y,” like the Ritz food hall.
If I am wrong, what does it say about the city that has built its identity as a scrappy, casual community of broke artists and outdoorsy nerds? Is that its own type of fantasy, an identity born out of branding more than the truth of the city itself? I guess we’ll find out on Soho House’s rooftop — rain permitting.