The wildfire that destroyed Lorraine Toussaint’s house in Malibu, Calif., in November of 2018 did not leave her unsheltered — she had a rental apartment in Midtown Manhattan — but it did leave her unmoored.
“To my daughter and me, home always means dirt. Home has to have dirt and plants,” said the Trinidad-and-Tobago-born Ms. Toussaint, 63, a series regular on the CBS crime drama “The Equalizer,” who is spending her summer playing Gertrude in the Shakespeare in the Park production of “Hamlet.” (Performances run through Aug. 6.)
Almost exactly a year after that signal loss, Ms. Toussaint was shooting an indie film in and around Rhinebeck, N.Y., and began to explore. “I was really kind of desperate to find a place that would let me escape New York,” she said. “I love all that the city has to offer, but it’s a lot for me.”
She had looked at a raft of prospective hideaways in New Jersey, but was now caught by the charms of the Hudson Valley.
“I didn’t know anyone,” Ms. Toussaint said. “But having been in the area for two months, I at least knew where the supermarket was and where the dry cleaner was, and I thought, ‘You know, that’s enough. That’s enough for me to buy a house here.’”
Lorraine Toussaint, 63
What is the neighborhood coming to? “I’ve become part of the community on the down low. People have said to me, ‘You’re that actress, but you seem very nice.’”
The very model of a motivated customer, she quickly zeroed in on a farmhouse built in the early 19th century, closing on it within weeks.
“She’s kind of an old girl,” Ms. Toussaint said affectionately of the house. “She’s a little bit crooked, and nothing is quite level. But she’s sweet and quaint and welcoming.”
There was “a wonderful screened porch that I fell in love with,” she said, as well as “kind of sprawling, sprawling land for a city girl.”
To be precise, 17 acres worth of sprawl, encompassing a large red barn, a few ponds, a stream, a path with a sign reading “Appaloosa Way,” and an extensive wildlife population. More about the fauna in a moment.
“It was what my daughter and I needed,” Ms. Toussaint said, “a house that felt like it was going to wrap its arms around us.”
Granted, while being enfolded, the new owners had to avert their eyes: The rooms were painted green and blue and mustard. And the exterior was an off-putting “kind of yellowish yellow,” as Ms. Toussaint described it.
“We were like, ‘This is not for us,’” said her daughter, Samara Toussaint, 18, a dance student. “My mom only wears white, and in any house I’ve ever lived with her the walls have only been white.”
There would be no breaching of custom here. A crew outfitted with brushes and paint cans was hastily assembled to put things to right. “I was on some internal clock,” Ms. Toussaint said. “I was determined that my daughter and I would spend the holidays there. I wanted us to light a fire and make Christmas dinner.” Mission accomplished.
The previous owner left three pieces of furniture behind: a pine hutch that Ms. Toussaint initially didn’t much appreciate, but now quite likes; a long dining table; and a sofa.
Covid lockdown, spent at the house, gave her plenty of time to tend to the décor. Keeping to a palette of whites and earth tones, and feeding a taste for flat-weave geometric-patterned rugs, Regency-style sofas, and lamps, light fixtures and tables that mixed wood and metal, Ms. Toussaint began bidding at online auctions. The very charming result: updated shabby chic.
“My theory in decorating is high-low,” she said. “You spend money on a couple of things and don’t spend it on a lot of things.”
Ms. Toussaint refused to go higher than $250 on any auction purchase, and generally prevailed at a far lower price point. The upright piano in the dining room: hers for $1.18 (yes, you read that right). A large piece of Persian tile: $5. The rattan chair favored by the family dog, Alfred, set her back $40, as did the substantial breakfront in the kitchen.
“I could have gotten another one, but I didn’t have room,” she said. “I really lamented that. But I was like, ‘Lorraine, you don’t need two of them.’”
She filled in with purchases from, among other stores, Ballard Designs (the 1920s-style desk in her office) and Anthropologie (the twins of the barrel chair and tasseled ottoman that she had admired on the set of “The Equalizer”). She bought the brass-banded pedestal table in her bedroom from the estate of Diahann Carroll.
“I was meant to be a doctor or a lawyer, and when I said I wanted to be an actress, my aunt asked, ‘What Black actresses have you seen?’” Ms. Toussaint recalled.
“And I said, ‘Diahann Carroll,’ because when I was growing up in Trinidad, ‘Julia’ was one of the only shows on TV,” she continued, referring to the 1960s sitcom, the first series that starred a Black woman in a non-stereotypical role.
“I can’t say Diahann became a close friend, but she was a friend,” Ms. Toussaint said. “And every time I saw her, I thanked her for being the face that allowed me to believe I could do what I now do.”
A year or so ago came the installation of a long-coveted Southern-style front porch, complete with swing and skylights. “She had a hard time with that,” Ms. Toussaint said of the house. “She was like, ‘What are they nailing into me?’”
This summer, a large deck is being added outside the kitchen (which is also getting a makeover). “I want the outside and inside to flow effortlessly,” she said.
Ms. Toussaint, who describes herself as a closet landscaper — and has a tractor to support that claim — has planted a flower and vegetable garden, and recently, persimmon trees.
“When I’m in the city, my mom will send me videos and say, ‘The blackberries are growing! The tomatoes are coming in!” said Samara.
Ms. Toussaint wanted country living; she got country living. She shares her acreage with many representatives from the animal kingdom — some winged, some antlered, some coiled. About that last category, she has adopted the policy of live and let slither.
“You’ve got to be mindful in nature,” said Ms. Toussaint, who has hired specialists to deal with the ever-expanding bat, beaver and woodchuck populations, but who describes the sight of deer eating apples off her tree as “quite lovely.”
Yes, she acknowledges, she is catering a Bambi buffet: “But I must tell you, there’s enough to go around.”
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