For more than a century, the grand Italianate mansion that serves as an anchor of this city’s European quarter was a beehive of American diplomacy and espionage. Spies toiled within and met their agents at the bar across the street, reporters dropped by for after-work drinks, and any Turk could walk in off the street to see the latest art exhibition or browse the library. There seemed to be a celebration every night.
“We were partying all the time,” said Ayse Ozakinci, who was a librarian for four decades in the imposing structure, the American Consulate in Istanbul. “There was a festive mood for everyone.”
And then, a dozen years ago, the party stopped and security walls enclosed the mansion, as the threat of terrorism sent American diplomats to a fortified hillside compound on the city’s outskirts, overlooking the Bosporus.
That put the American government in the real estate business, thanks to a law that required the State Department to keep ownership of the historic building as a space to foster relations between the United States and the Middle East.
Now the party is back on, but not exactly in the way lawmakers had intended.
The walls came down recently, offering breathing room to a crammed neighborhood and unveiling the building’s rebirth as an opulent clubhouse for Istanbul’s social elite. With a new luxury hotel beside it, the mansion, under a 51-year, roughly $25 million lease with the United States government, is the latest outpost of the private club empire Soho House.
In 2004, Congress, through the efforts of the former Senator Ernest F. Hollings and backed by onetime Istanbul diplomats who wanted the United States to preserve the building’s history, created the Hollings Center for International Dialogue. The idea was to use the mansion as a place to “reinforce communication and understanding between the U.S. and the Muslim world,” according to the center’s website.