When Brooklyn native LaTonya Yvette purchased a 173-year-old colonial-style home in Athens, New York, as a weekend getaway and rental property for her family, she hatched a plan to share the house with as many members of the BIPOC community as possible.
During the buying process, the author and stylist—who is a Black woman and a self-employed, single mother of two—couldn’t help but think about equity. Though she was able to purchase the Hudson Valley home with seed money from her upcoming second book, Stand In My Window: Meditations on Home and How We Make It (due to be published by Dial Press in 2024), she remained mindful of the persisting gap in Black homeownership that exists due to an ongoing history of racial injustice and housing discrimination. So she decided to use a portion of income from the rental property to donate toward subsidized stays for BIPOC guests.
The three-bedroom, three-bathroom Mae House features a large backyard with vegetable and flower gardens and plenty of trees. As the property’s landkeeper, LaTonya works with Cherokee Lynn, head of community engagement and outreach, and innkeeper Nicole Gonzales to maintain the thoughtfully updated residence and grounds. Together, the women arranged every inch of every space with artful intention, adding rich colors and textures and furnishing the interior with new and vintage pieces largely by Black and Indigenous artists and makers. The result is a house brimming with warmth and individuality.
"We work so well together," Cherokee says. "It’s comforting to be a team of women of color and mothers and making this happen." We sat down with the trio behind the Mae House to find out more about reimagining the residence as a refuge for members of the BIPOC community.
What drew you to this house and location?
LaTonya Yvette: The house is in a quaint, beautiful village right across [the Hudson River] from Hudson and feels deeply entrenched in another time, with plenty of trees and a large yard. It was important for the house to have land, but to also be accessible by train from New York City. As a New Yorker who doesn’t drive, this access was not only important for me personally, but something I knew so many other New Yorkers also needed.
What inspired the property’s name?
LY: Mae was my grandmother’s middle name. It’s the same name I gave to my daughter in honor of my grandmother, whose life and legacy has stayed with me beyond her years. Her genuine ease, style, peace, and commitment to her Brooklyn community was something I strive to not only share with my children, but [also] to embody in my work. The name Mae means mothering, care, and nurturing—things I hope this place brings to me, my family, and the community that will grow here. It’s also the alternate spelling for May, the month in which I closed on this property. I believe a name is not just a name, it’s a spirit we choose to carry.
Why did you want to create a BIPOC residency program at the Mae House?
LY: As a Black woman who was born and mostly raised in New York City, as a creative, and as a single parent, opportunities for respite are few and far between. I’ve been able to offer that to myself and my children with the opportunities afforded to me by way of work, and it’s part of my ethics to extend it to others.
We run off an ethos of community and mutual aid; we’re not a nonprofit, but the aid arm of a company. We believe that offering BIPOC the gift of Rest as Residency, with no contingent work, art, or agreements to otherwise fulfill, is a deeply important aspect in how we generationally heal as people. This residency, easily accessible by mass transit and funded by community members’ stays, provides a nourishing and safe space for BIPOC to connect with nature and settle our bones away from the city or spaces we call home.
Cherokee Lynn: I fully subscribe to the notion that rest is resistance. As a Black woman and a single mother of a toddler, I’m very aware of the barriers to providing ourselves and our families with opportunities to simply rest and enjoy nature. The practice of sharing space is something that Black people have done for centuries and continue to do. The Mae House is a beautiful example of the ways in which we can care for and nourish others in our community.
How did you approach curating the interior?
LY: With the Mae House in particular, and within the realm of buying and renovating a house as a single Black woman and acting as a general contractor, I imagined the folks who would one day spend time here. To that end—what a person, a stranger, may feel when they enter a room [is] designed by someone else.
I [worked] with a color consultant from Farrow & Ball—it was important for the house to have a story, and each room does. More than that, the story shifts, because so many of the colors in the house shift with the light and time of day.
Nicole Gonzales: Each room is outfitted with thoughtful details; there are beautiful linens and a clawfoot tub with bath salts for a relaxing soak. There’s sage, or you might see a bouquet of flowers from the garden—the house is prepared with so much love; we hope guests feel a sense of warmth, home, peace, and being grounded. There’s something special about the Mae House from the moment you walk in, a sort of palpable energy that consumes you. Every inch of the home was put together with so much intention and love, and you truly feel that when you visit.
CL: We’re very intentional about what we include in the house. Part of what I do is make sure items in the house—from toilet paper to olive oil to children’s toys—are sourced from as many BIPOC entrepreneurs and creators as possible.
What are some of the items you sourced from BIPOC-owned companies?
LY: The dining room table is an old high school art table from Woodward Throwbacks [a Black-owned manufacturer of furniture and goods made from reclaimed materials] in Detroit. There are objects, containers, and other items, including a curtain by printmaker and textile artist Jen Hewett in one of the guest rooms. A lot of the inexpensive but gorgeously designed stuff is from my friend Justina Blakeney’s collection with Target. The coffee table is from Tshidi Matale of Bontleg, the toilet paper and tissues are from Reel, and even the little magazines in one of the bathrooms are collected from BLK MKT Vintage in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. And plenty of the books in the living room are by Black authors.
What drew you to vintage pieces?
LY: It’s funny because so much of what’s new looks vintage—I guess it’s my eye. But yes, I’d say that the house is 60 percent vintage and [otherwise curated with] small designers, companies, and brands that I love. The green sofa and rug in the living room are vintage; the writing desk in the primary bedroom came with the house. I believe that objects carry stories with them. It’s part of the work in this book I’m finishing; sharing stories of not only people, but of the objects we [collect] along our way. But in addition, my interest in vintage comes from a sustainable lens—I just do not believe in buying all new things for an old house. I’d much rather be able to spark beauty and conversation and build community versus prop something up because it’s on trend.
What herbs and vegetables do you grow in the backyard garden?
LY: Oh, we’ve grown so much—there’s lots of kale, spinach, lettuce, oregano, thyme, dill, tomatoes, and so much more. Sowing the land and sharing the bounty is something that Black people have done since the beginning of time, so finding a way to incorporate that ethic and tradition with the help of many friends who brought seeds, weeded the garden, and watered the boxes was truly a gift. It was a good teacher in terms of helping us to slow down and pay attention to what we can collectively create.
What have you observed so far in terms of the impact of the BIPOC residency?
CL: The magic of the Rest as Residency [program] is that it gives the opportunity to reset and spend time in nature without the financial burden usually associated with these sorts of experiences. It’s incredibly rare to find a program for BIPOC that gives the opportunity to rest without requiring any labor or exchange. In spring, we welcomed our first guest, an Afro-Indigenous art educator, mother, and creator from New York City, [and] we recently hosted the leaders of Activation Residency, a program that has also recognized and responded to the need for all people to have access to nature.
I love hearing from the people that stay with us. They tell us things like that they picked veggies from the garden to make dinner, spent time relaxing in the soaking tub, and walked to the waterfront to watch the sunset.
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