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Disrupting the Old Boys' Club

Rachel Swan | August 23, 2013 | Lifestyle Story City Life

Read more: A brief history of San Francisco's private clubs.

This isn't the way tech success stories are supposed to turn out. In 2008, Michael Birch and his wife, Xochi, sold their fledgling social networking site, Bebo, to AOL for $850 million. Two years later, when AOL flipped the company for less than $10 million, Bebo became known as one of the worst acquisitions in tech history. Still, the Birches made out all right, and they continued to funnel their profits into various other enterprises, some of which still reap millions annually. (In fact, earlier this summer they rolled some of those profits back into Bebo, reclaiming it for a tidy $1 million.)

Somewhere along the line, however, the couple—he 43, she 41—grew weary of their tech brethren. They had originally moved from London to San Francisco for its diversity and vibrant art scene, but they found that opportunities for stimulating conversation didn't avail themselves naturally. "It's a diverse city, but you have to actively go out and look for it," Xochi says. "Otherwise you wind up running in the same circle."

The Birches wanted more variety. They wanted a sense of belonging in a city that can foster alienation. They wanted to collect and curate a mix of people from different industries, give them entry to a luxurious clubhouse, and construct a metaphorical moat around it. They wanted, in short, to build the world’s most inclusive exclusive club.

In 2009, the couple found what they considered an elegant solution. They had just spent about $13.5 million buying the old Musto Building, which had once housed a marble warehouse and then a candy factory, in San Francisco’s Jackson Square neighborhood. At first they considered turning it into an office building, but Michael saw the potential for something grander. He looked at the sumptuous interior and immediately pictured a private social club where the city’s landed gentry could meet their counterparts in the creative class.

“As we were designing it, we had so many ideas for bars and lounges and spaces for people to connect and socialize,” Xochi says. By the time the Birches had hammered out all the details, their venue had evolved from an informal salon into a massive, five-story complex with four bars and 14 luxury hotel rooms, plus a penthouse with a 20-person Jacuzzi. They hired au courant designer Ken Fulk to decorate the interior and dispatched a former Beverly Hills concierge, Stephen Flowers, to oversee membership. And they christened their club the Battery, in part after its location on Battery Street. But the name, notes inaugural member, filmmaker, and Webby Awards founder Tiffany Shlain, also brings to mind an electric current. The Battery, in effect, will be a recharging station—at least for those with enough juice to be connected to it.

The Battery is scheduled to debut with a members-only party in October. For the Birches, it will serve as a sanctuary where they and a handpicked group of VIPs can escape the very line of business that enabled the proprietors to build it. Michael compares the Battery favorably to New York’s Soho House or the Hartford Club in London. Yet he’s quick to differentiate it from another category of high-end social gathering: the CEO dinners that his designer, Fulk, helps conceive for the newly minted aristocrats of Silicon Valley. “We’re not trying to make it feel like a top market place,” Michael says. He takes great pains to note that the Battery is a social club, not a business incubator.

With that in mind, the Birches cobbled together a membership committee of 20 influential people from different industries and tasked it with nominating the club’s first 100 members; each member, in turn, will be charged with recruiting two more. In startup speak, the Battery is more Path (which limits one’s social network to 150 people) than Facebook. Its filtering system is engineered to amass a community of friends of friends without allowing the floodgates to ever truly open. Flowers estimates that annual dues will be about $2,400; occasionally, on a case-by-case basis, the membership committee will offer scholarships to worthy candidates—say, a cash-strapped gallery owner with connections to contemporary artists. If Michael had his druthers, the calculus would work out so that a tightrope walker could bump into an angel investor in the stairwell.

It doesn’t appear that any circus performers have signed on, yet. But an early glimpse of the member list does, indeed, reveal an estimable mix. Among those who’ve been chosen by the committee are Shlain and her husband, UC Berkeley robotics professor Ken Goldberg; artist and Bay Lights fundraiser Dorka Keehn; poet and nonprofit strategist Tamsin Smith; and Internet entrepreneur Trevor Traina, son of the Fine Arts Museums’ board president, Dede Wilsey. Smith describes the Battery as “a fellowship,” “a cohort,” and “a community of the curious.” Traina says that the recruitment system should keep things from becoming snooty. “It’s somewhere between Noah’s Ark,” he says, “and that old shampoo ad where two people told two people who told two people.”

That idea of creating a fellowship by word of mouth is the core romance of the Battery, giving the club a veneer of spontaneity and authenticity despite its relative regimentation. The Birches hope to preserve that ethos by discouraging modern gadgetry within the Battery’s corridors (save for a couple of rooms) and getting members to confab the old-fashioned way—by bumping into each other in the courtyard or launching spirited debates in the library. Michael plans to enact tacit prohibitions against tweeting, Facebooking, or pitching startup ideas to other club members, though it’s not clear how or whether he’ll enforce them. “What we don’t want to see is a lot of people with suits and ties and a PowerPoint open on the table,” the long-haired businessman says. He envisions ideas being written down on napkins.

That’s not to say that the club won’t at least look like a luxury oasis. Once construction is completed, the Battery will include suspended staircases and a gym overlooking a koi pond. Fulk’s design is replete with ornate candelabra, taxidermied animals, and cerused wood paneling. Patrons will ascend the floors in a hand-built glass elevator, and solid brick walls will form a shell around the building, ensuring that none of its amenities are visible from the outside.

The floor plan alone seems to befit a place where wealthy philistines proposition one another, but that notion makes Michael bristle. He may be a digital kingpin, but for now, he’d like to disconnect himself. “Do I consider myself a tech person? I guess,” he muses. “I still invest in companies, and I used to spend 90 percent of my day coding. But as time went on, I became more curious about other things.”

Right now it’s a little unclear how the Battery will maintain its fragile balance of young and old, artist and technoid—or how Michael will square his desire for diversity with the Battery’s fairly clandestine and limited acceptance process. Traina believes that the crowd will fluctuate naturally as members roll in and out of San Francisco. And Michael, for his part, appears to be reconciling his wishes for privacy and community, which occasionally seem at cross-purposes. “We take the word ‘private’ as seriously as we can,” he says, noting that it’s an endangered concept in an era of universal prying. Still, he’s not blind to the irony of an anti–social media space bankrolled by the sale of a failed social network: “I admit,” he says, “I’m part of the problem.”

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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