Back in late February, just days before his latest and largest hotel opening, Lyon Porter was showing a guest around his new Urban Cowboy Lodge, deep in the Catskill Mountains. Here was the Estonian sauna in an Airstream trailer with adjacent fire pit, there the Esopus Creek bordering acres of front lawn. Oh, and check out the private karaoke room off the downstairs lounge, and the antlered splendor of the penthouse suite.
Then, a week after the official opening in March, the COVID-19 crisis forced Porter to temporarily close the lodge, along with his three other properties in Brooklyn and Nashville. But you can’t keep an inventive hotelier down for long, and in the midst of the pandemic, Porter found a way to welcome people back to the lodge as soon as it was safe—he called in Roberta’s, the famous pizzeria in Bushwick, Brooklyn, for a Catskill residency. Every weekend through June, guests can now enjoy wood-fired pies while staying socially distant on the lawn, as a DJ spins on the deck and an open-air bar serves customers one at a time.
The lodge reopens on June 4 for stays from Thursdays to Sundays, with in-room and outdoor dining only. “It was always supposed to be an escape to nature, and the crisis hasn’t changed that. In fact, it’s magnified how essential and special it is to sit and look out at the vibrant green or the stars and not hear sirens,” says Porter. “The ultimate luxury right now is space and nature and being outside without having to avoid crowds. People feel free walking around our 68 acres or the surrounding wilderness and people need that.” He believes in the purpose of this place, and that you will, too.
Porter’s route to hospitality wasn’t direct. He left home at 16 to join a minor league hockey team and spent years zigzagging across the country. For one summer in 2001, he lived in a loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with five friends from high school, including Urban Cowboy Lodge’s current creative director, Nate Fish. “Our rooms were made of plywood and you’d go from party to party inside the building,” he recalls. “I was 22 and had never known that level of freedom existed. I was in love with New York.” After a few more years of 30-hour bus rides around the country, he moved to New York permanently and quickly became a successful luxury real estate broker.
Porter calls himself the accidental hotelier. His first property, the Urban Cowboy B&B in Williamsburg, is actually his home, a townhouse on Powers Street that he decided to open up and share with strangers in 2014. “I was getting a divorce and I was sick of talking about real estate,” he says. “Someone asked me what I did, and I said, ‘I’m opening a bed-and-breakfast in Brooklyn.’”
The house was his first major design project and he gave himself free rein. The plank floors and ceilings, garage doors for open-air space, Pendleton patterns, found objects, wood cabin in the backyard: they’re all from, by, and for himself. “I built a log cabin in Brooklyn. I built my dream house—I didn’t design it to be a hotel, I didn’t design it to be a B&B,” he says. “I wouldn’t be an artist without that house.”
At the time, Porter was also in a new relationship with his now-partner Jersey Banks. Together, the couple regularly hosted dinner parties and gatherings, which B&B guests were invited to join, and word started to spread. “It happened organically. It was our home and people would come stay, they would eat dinner with us, and we’d be playing records and they would meet all of our friends,” he says. “We were just wildly in love and you could feel it.”
After professional photographers with many Instagram followers began asking if they could come for the weekend, Porter and Banks started their own Urban Cowboy feed. Whoever scrolled through could see the good times to be had at the B&B. Porter’s other properties, Urban Cowboy Nashville and the nearby Dive Motel (reopening June 1 and May 30, respectively), are also an extension of how the couple lives—playhouses for adults and a creative community. Many hotels are selling you a lifestyle; Porter is selling you his lifestyle.
The Urban Cowboy Lodge is Porter’s latest invitation to join his “arrive-as-strangers-leave-as-friends” ethos. It’s also the first time he and Banks have partnered with a hotel developer, Phil Hospod of Dovetail & Co., who has known Porter for a decade. The two were looking to do something together; when they heard the old Alpine Inn, set on 68 acres in the Big Indian Wilderness about 2.5 hours north of Manhattan, was available, they drove up to look at it that weekend. “The way we talk about it is, ‘Where do we want to spend time?,’” Hospod says about becoming co-owners in this wilderness that has been an escape for New Yorkers for nearly two centuries. “He and Jersey have built a really strong community and a following,” he says. “And Lyon’s aesthetic is very unique and maximalist.”
It’s a style that Porter loves to show off as he walks up the stairs to the front porch of the main lodge, sporting a worn leather cowboy hat and Southwest-patterned wool jacket with zero irony. From the outside, the property hasn’t changed much from its previous life as the Alpine Inn, a Catskills mainstay for more than 80 years: chalet-style brown cladding, peaked roof, red shutters. But every inch of the lodge interior and two guest buildings has been stripped back and remade into what Porter calls his dream Adirondack lodge in the Catskills.
“I love the Adirondacks, but you know what I don’t love about them? How far they are,” Porter says. “So I’m building an Adirondack lodge in the Catskills, because I can drive here in two hours from Midtown Manhattan.” The lodge itself is a short hop from three ski resorts, Esopus Creek with coveted fly fishing and tubing spots, and hikes on Slide Mountain, plus the towns of Woodstock, Phoenicia, and Roxbury.
The entry hall houses the bar and separates the dining room from the living room. This central space is anchored by a fireplace, framed by tree trunks and branches, and faced with river stones from the nearby creek. Midcentury carved wooden couches (the only original pieces from the Alpine Inn, reupholstered with leather and red saddle blankets) surround the fireplace. One of Porter’s favorite properties is New York’s Bowery Hotel for its baronial grandeur and instant, intangible comfort, and that shows up here.
Porter designs for himself. In the 26 rooms in the main lodge and the Alpine and Walden buildings (there’s also a stand-alone chalet and cabin), woodblock patterns cover the walls and ceiling, while deep copper tubs, big enough for two, sit under picture windows, perfect for stargazing. The flames from the gas potbelly stoves are as soothing as the plaid curtains and Pendleton blankets.
Woodwork abounds; the bed in the penthouse suite is surrounded by curving loops of black willow, hand-twisted into shapes that cover the ceiling, an ouroboros of a headboard. “None of it needs to make sense. I love to surprise people. That’s what I love to do, design-wise. I watch people’s eyes when I take them up to the penthouse and they light up,” he says.
“I live on site while designing and sleep in every suite,” says Porter. None of it is preplanned.” Banks helps keep things on track. “It’s Jersey actually making sure things work. She says, ‘Lyon, it looks beautiful. It’s dead symmetrical. Where’s the fucking closet?’”
Porter and Banks moved to the Catskills last year from their homebase in East Nashville to open the lodge, bringing with them a crew of companions. Friends typically staff their hotels, stay at and invest in their hotels, and sometimes move in. “Our friends are always at our businesses, and some of them work for us. It’s a very natural crossover,” says Banks. “They’re treated as family.”
And so are the guests. “Lemon [one of the staff] is one of our best friends and has worked at every Cowboy, and she gets texts from guests a year later,” Porter says. “You can’t fake it.” Creating a good time is Urban Cowboy’s stock-in-trade, which Porter and Banks ensure through unique programming. At the lodge, creative director Nate Fish has made his entire record collection available for browsing and regularly hosts old-timey cocktail hours, during which he plays recordings of radio shows from the 1940s and ’50s while people drink by the fire. Several other activities are currently being adjusted for health reasons, but may include classes on the deck, bonfires on the lawn, and guided hikes.
The whole vibe is masculine, but with the intimacy of women who’ve never met bonding in the ladies room. It’s Porter’s dream world. “I love putting people in a room together and sprinkling a little bit of this and a bit of that, put them by the fire and play some bingo,” he laughs. “I try to add whimsy and wonder and magic.”
With his new partners at Dovetail & Co., Porter has plans to expand his empire. He’s hoping Hawaii is next, and Montana or Wyoming, and then perhaps Memphis or Montreal. But for now, he and Banks are undertaking their biggest collaboration yet: a baby girl due in August. If they can’t live on site for months at a time, can they find a new friend who knows a woodworker to create a shou sugi ban effect for the sauna, or the chef who cooks Francis Mallman–style over an open fire? Can they still design those intangible connections?
“I don’t think people have enough fun. I want a collection of inspiring, unique, whimsical spaces where people let their hair down and have an authentically present experience and get away from their daily loop,” says Porter. “If we can do that and we keep having fun doing it, then what a life, you know?”