From the mission archivist: This is probably a better anecdote for house hunters and Kerouac readers than motorcycle travelers, so feel free to skip if you’re so inclined. You’re forgiven in advance, so go in peace.
Sunday, Oct. 18 | Day 5: Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac died in St. Petersburg in 1969 at age 47, leaving behind a substantial body of work, his novel On the Road that influenced generations of readers, and a house on 10th Avenue North that you wouldn’t look at twice unless you knew he’d lived there.
I’m a Kerouac aficionado (certainly not a scholar) and we’ve stopped by this house at 5169 10th Ave. nearly every year we’ve been coming to St. Pete.
Why that is, I can’t rightly say; we feel the need to pay respects to those we admire1, including writers whose words make you see the world differently.
That sentiment has been shared over decades by other Kerouac fans, who visit the house and put short, heartfelt notes in the mailbox and screen door. I’ve seen some of them myself, like the one pictured above.
And now, on this St. Pete motorcycle ride (suddenly without motorcycles2) I discover Kerouac’s house has been renovated and is for sale.
An open house is scheduled for Saturday, the day we arrive, and again on Sunday, the next day. The coincidental timing is too perfect to ignore, so we decide to go.
“Are you here for the house or the history?” asks the real estate agent3 when we arrive. It’s a legitimate question and we say both, because we’ve entertained thoughts of moving to the St. Pete area in a few years.
But mainly I want to see the inside of Kerouac’s house, renovated and sanitized and HGTV-ready though it may be. I also feel duty-bound to take as many pictures as I can for my best friend Van Yasek, who introduced me to Kerouac and deserves a full report.
Most of the visitors are not here for history, it appears. We talk to a few while waiting outside and they confirm they’re house hunting.
“Oh, we’re here for the house,” a young woman says. “This is a nice area and we’re looking to buy.” The won’t-you-please-sign-in guestbook echoes a similar theme.
Kerouac lived here with Stella, his third wife, and Gabrielle, his invalid mother. He was reportedly working on a novel about his father’s print shop in Lowell, Massachusetts, at the time of his death.
Gabrielle died in 1973 and Stella died in 1990, in Lowell. The home had been in stasis since then.
A St. Pete-based nonprofit group hoped to buy the house and turn it into a writer’s retreat4 but was unable to reach an agreement5 with Kerouac’s in-laws, the owners. It was sold this year to Flip Side, LLC, a house flipper, and is now on the market for $350,000.
Inside – at last! – we see the sellers have taken care to acknowledge Kerouac’s presence while touting the house as a nice place to live.
It’s still a bizarre coupling of two worlds; inspecting the interior, I feel as if I’m in a TV show that’s a cross between Flip or Flop and House on Haunted Hill6.
Some items are labeled “Pending certification from the estate of Jack Kerouac” which presumably means the estate will determine if Kerouac actually used it. Most of the furniture has been moved out over the years, including Kerouac’s iconic desk, which was exhibited at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
“The house was in pretty bad shape,” the real estate agent says, and lists the repairs: a new roof, new HVAC system, wall paint, and deep cleaning. The outside walkway has been replaced for greater curb appeal.
She also says the renovators saved the original interior whenever possible. In the kitchen, “the appliances are the same and cabinets are, too. The door handles are original.”
Everyone comments on the terrazzo floors7, which sparkle throughout the house. “Oh, yes, they did a great job polishing the floor,” the agent says. Even I’m impressed.
We take our time walking around, looking at rooms, noting the cedar closets and 1960s-era wallpaper and wondering what books Kerouac had in the built-in bookcase.
The house does look good and it’s fascinating to see the inside, though I feel like a bit of a voyeur looking at everything, taking in details like door handles and wallpaper.
However, I can’t forget the utter sadness of Kerouac’s last years. He didn’t really want to move to St. Petersburg – he called it “a good place to come die” – but the climate was better for his mother, paralyzed after a stroke.
He was brutalized by the unexpected celebrity that sprang up after On the Road, his seminal work8, was published in 1957.
That book and the later writings of Kerouac and others created what came to be known as the Beat Generation9 (whose members questioned and rejected middle-class values and were later belittled and marginalized as beatniks). Kerouac became known as King of the Beats, a title he didn’t like and refused to accept.
Kerouac was an alcoholic for much of his life. He died at nearby St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg of an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis. His funeral was held at St. Jean Baptiste Church in Lowell, where he once served as an altar boy.
Someone, probably soon, will buy the house at 5169 10th Avenue North. They may be mindful of its famous occupant and integrate his memory into their new home, but that’s doubtful. After all, one can’t truly live in a museum; anyone who buys a house wants to make it their own. I understand that.
But the American way, the method of living shunned by the Beat Generation – the same attitude that propels us to rush ahead, forget the past, tear out what we should pause to appreciate, and calculate the quick profit – will likely prevail.
I’m thankful to have seen Kerouac’s house, but I’m certain that, when we come here again next year, I’ll look at it, see what the new owners have done, and think: We’ve all blown it again.
Addendum: Maybe It Will Be Okay
The Tampa Bay Times reports the house has been sold to a couple who want to preserve its history and open it to the public, either as a writer’s retreat or a place for literary events.
This comes as a surprise to me and I’m very glad to hear it. Perhaps it will work out after all.
1 – We’ve also visited the Jack Kerouac Park in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he grew up, and his gravesite in Edson Cemetery in Lowell.
2 – Since our motorcycles are parked in Wallace, South Carolina, 570 miles from here.
3 – Whose daughter was evidently staving off boredom on the sofa with her smartphone.
4 – A different nonprofit, The Kerouac Project, had success in Orlando, Florida, where they transformed one of Kerouac’s former houses – the one in which he wrote Dharma Bums – into a writer’s haven.
5 – I am sorry this did not come to pass. We attended one of their fundraisers last year and I was impressed by their vision and sincerity. The Tampa Bay Times said the Flip Side owner bought it partly because it was Kerouac’s retirement home, but mostly because he considers “it in a real up-and-coming neighborhood.”
6 – The 1959 classic film with Vincent Price, Richard Long and Carol Ohmart, of course.
7 – Terrazzo floors are a near-liquid composite of marble, quartz, glass and other material and are poured, smoothed out, and allowed to dry. It has a reputation for durability.
8 – I really like On the Road but prefer the original scroll version.
9 – Beat, as in “beat down” but also as in “beatific.”