When Diana Kendall began studying social clubs 30 years ago, they had a certain reputation: Cigar-smoke-filled lounges inhabited by wealthy white men smugly blackballing wannabe members. “Most elite clubs are a place you can go where you don’t have to associate with the general population,” says Kendall, a sociologist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “Their exclusivity is part of their allure.”

Matt Joblon, the Denver-based developer behind chic Cherry Creek hot spots Halcyon and Moxy hotels, and his partners want their new private venture, the Clayton Members Club & Hotel, to be different. When the 63-room boutique hotel debuts in Cherry Creek this month, the Clayton will offer all the gilded amenities high society might expect—five eateries, a rooftop pool, a fitness center, a coworking space—but the club’s membership will value “character over capital,” says Rachel Smith, the Clayton’s head of membership. That means blending the wealthy with the not-so-wealthy, a diverse group with connections to under-resourced Denver communities who can best help the Clayton achieve its stated values: to collaborate, connect, and give back.

Touting diversity is a hallmark of a new brand of elite clubs trying to attract younger members, Kendall says. Take Soho House, a worldwide chain that originated in London and boasts of a diverse membership on its website. Yet the language of inclusivity, Kendall says, can be a smokescreen for less-explicit barriers. Social clubs of old typically registered as nonprofits, while new models like the Clayton are for-profit ventures dependent upon membership fees. Not everyone has that disposable income—and the majority of people who do are white.

A rendering of the Clayton’s interior. Photo courtesy of Clayton Membership Club

Enter the Clayton’s nonprofit arm, the Clayton Contributes Fund. One percent of dues will go to the fund, as will larger donations, including at least $100,000 that Joblon, who declined to be interviewed for this story, and others are giving. (The Clayton makes money from nonmember guests, too—paying to stay at the hotel earns visitors access to the club’s amenities.) The fund will allow an undisclosed percentage of members to pay less than the $200-per-month membership fee in exchange for, say, hosting events. To ensure minorities don’t feel like they’re fulfilling a quota (there isn’t one), Smith says people of color comprise 50 percent of the membership committee: “We’re depending upon them to reach their individual networks.”

That recruitment model has already netted a diverse group of Denverites, such as Kendra Anderson, who owned RiNo’s Bar Helix before it closed during the pandemic. The fund also finances members’ charitable endeavors, and Anderson serves on the committee that monitors the club’s philanthropic impact. “I have an opportunity to connect with like-minded people around our shared vision to live a life that’s about a lot more than food and drink,” Anderson says.

It’s the endeavors members decide to support, however, that will ultimately reveal the Clayton’s values. “If those don’t line up with the ideals of diversity and inclusivity,” says Patrick Mahoney, a sociology professor at Colorado State University, “they may have a hard time maintaining a diverse membership.”

This article was originally published in 5280 March 2021.
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil is a Denver-based journalist and 5280's former digital senior associate editor.