Feature: Austin Architecture
From lumber to luxe, the story behind The Pershing, Austin’s best-kept secret club
by Tobin Levy
Photographs by Leonid Furmanksy & Nick Simonite
Private clubs are ubiquitous in metropolises like New York, Los Angeles and London. Still, in 2013, when Austinites started hearing whispers about plans for Pershing, an exclusive social club on East 5th Street, some panicked, as though a social club was a White Walker preying on the Austin ethos rather than mankind.
It should be noted that Pershing is not Austin’s first private social club. The Headliners Club, on the 21st floor of the Chase Tower, has been around for more than sixty years. Only members and their guests can enjoy the stunning bird’s-eye views and the spectacularly patrician sensibility. At the Headliners Club, as with Pershing, dues are required in exchange for the luxuries of convenience and met expectations. Pershing offers the first contemporary alternative.
Pershing founder Kip McClanahan, who moved to Austin 34 years ago, sought to address Austin’s relaxed spirit and growth through this passion project. He repurposed a one-acre property on the East Side rather than seek out a shiny new downtown high rise for the club. His goal was to provide a unique gathering place for Austin’s creative class, whether their medium was food, music, media, tech, or the visual arts.
The lot was formerly home to the Austin Lumber Company. The site came with an old mill; an expansive lumber shed full of unused lumber; a rail spur; the shell of a courtyard; a 1930s two-story bungalow; and, courtesy of the cement company that used to be across the street, an ungodly expanse of concrete. It seemed more amenable to becoming a parking lot rather than the verdant urban oasis it is today. Now native trees and plants in steel planters surround the buildings and imbue the courtyard with an upscale backyard feel, replete with a hanging wicker swing.
“The amount of green that is here now is magnitudes greater than what originally existed,” says Sky Currie, the project manager. Pershing is a collaboration between McClanahan, Currie, who is with Clayton & Little Architects, dwg. landscape architect Cassie Bergstrom Gowan, and interior designer Rachel Horn. They created a space that reflects Austin’s famous affinity for the outdoors and some of its history. Across from the lot, where there now stand a series of condos, there used to be a sign that read: “Welcome to Pershing, Texas.” Just as the space essentially named itself, the existing buildings and materials that were already there informed the design. The fluidity of the space relies on the seamless integration between exterior and interior, industrial and organic. To incorporate the bones and connect disparate pre-existing elements, “the landscaping component wasn’t the traditional linear process where the architecture comes first,” explains Currie. They happened simultaneously.
“We also tried to design a certain nimbleness to the space,” says Gowan. The former lumber shed was transformed into an event space that can be opened up for a party of 400 or, with scrims, turned into a venue as intimate as the adjoining courtyard, which features an outdoor bar and cooking area, a canopied, open air grassy lounge, and a long dining table with overhanging bistro lights for the perfect outdoor dinner party. It offers a pathway to the renovated bungalow. Throughout both spaces there are nooks and crannies that allow members to indulge in luxe privacy or enjoy a more social experience. Members come for an alternate work space, cocktail hours, dinner parties and late-night fetes.
The interior of the bungalow has a kind of sexy vibe, with velvety fabrics, faux-furry pillows, deep blues, and animal-skin rugs. The first floor includes an expansive bar, the second a sleek kitchen, an exquisite dining room, and a panoply of oriental rugs, brass ornate mirrors, and elegant sitting areas, including one with a brown leather couch and opaque golden drapery that creates a harem effect when closed.
“Grown-up bohemian luxury was the thread of what this was supposed to feel like,” says Horn. “It’s Texan, European, and a little bit rock and roll.” It is a surprisingly cohesive aesthetic, one that reflects Austin’s growing diversity and warrants playful exploration. Its members are generally between the ages of 30 and 45 and, by regularly bringing in guest chefs, the club reflects a restaurant culture that didn’t exist fifteen years ago. Though the creative team eschewed a rooftop pool (a common private club amenity) for a more down to earth presence, over time, they plan on adding infrastructure and more amenities, such as a spa.
Pershing captures some of the spirit of Austin rather than a ghost of the past. The closest they get to being a White Walker is the headstone they found on the property. “We still have it, but there wasn’t a dead person,” McClanahan promises. “Everyone looked, but nothing was buried here.” Pershing is very much alive and, for those initially worried about any cultural ramifications, it is a sigh of relief.
To inquire about membership, email info@thePershing.com or visit their website thepershing.com.
Read more from the Architecture Issue | October 2017