Ken and Gina Burchenal weren’t planning on buying Jack Kerouac’s old house on 10th Avenue N. in St. Pete’s Disston Heights neighborhood.
They were heading to lunch one lazy Saturday morning last October. One of their kids had told them about an open house at the nondescript brick ranch home on the corner of 10th and 52nd.
So, with no particular place to go, and a healthy dose of curiosity, the couple stopped by.
Seventy-two hours later, and $360,000 lighter, the Largo couple were the proud owners of the last home of Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac — Jack Kerouac, to the world.
The On The Road author, cheerleader for the Beat Generation, artist and consummate drunk, had lived in the home with his third wife Stella and disabled mother Gabrielle from 1966 until his death, at age 47, in 1969.
“We walked in and thought this is a great little house. We were looking for a property to invest in, though certainly not a historical landmark. But it did intrigue us, captured our imaginations. So we thought why not?
“I have to admit when the offer was accepted, we did look at each other and say, ‘What the heck have we just done?’ We certainly didn’t have a plan, or a vision of what to do with it.”
Literature, however, is in Ken Burchenal’s blood. After getting his masters degree at USF in Tampa, he was awarded a doctorate in American literature from the University of Texas in Austin.
And for more than 20 years before retiring, he taught American, British and world literature at learning centers such Baylor, Concordia and the University of Texas San Antonio. He knows a lot about Jack Kerouac.
“Naturally I’ve read several of his novels, taught some of his most important ones, and lectured about the Beat movement. It’s not like I’m a cult member, but I think his writing is super-important.”
Burchenal offers to show us around his new acquisition and fill us in on its history, which he’s been researching with a new passion. “Remember, I’m a professor, I research.”
Seems Kerouac bought the three-bed, three-bath 1,760-square-foot home sometime in 1966. For a time he owned the house next door at 5155 10th Avenue North. It wasn’t that he was a big fan of St. Pete — he once described it as “the town of the newly wed and living dead” — it’s just that the Florida weather suited his mother’s declining health.
Following the author’s death at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Pete from liver cirrhosis, his wife and mother continued to live in the house. Then Gabrielle Kerouac died in 1973, and wife Stella in 1990.
“After Stella passed, the Kerouac estate closed up the home and essentially left it untouched. Friends went round to mow the grass and make repairs. But for 30 years it was a ghost house.”
More recently, various organizations, including St. Pete’s Friends of Jack Kerouac, tried in vain to raise money to buy the property. But in June last year, the Kerouac estate sold it to Frank Viggiano, who runs St. Pete-based house-flippers The Flip Side, for $220,000.
“They actually did a great job renovating the house without changing its character,” says Burchenal. “They got rid of the rodents, put on a new roof, and replaced the original a/c. They did a lot.”
Burchenal is busy on the phone when we arrive, trying to find out why the security alarm company was a no-show. “Go on in and take a look around,” he says.
Anyone expecting a Jack Kerouac time capsule would likely be disappointed. Way back in the early ’90s, many of the author’s more collectible possessions were removed from the house for safekeeping.
His manuscript of On The Road — typed on a 120-foot continuous paper roll — ended up being sold at auction in 2001 to Indianapolis Colts owner James Irsay for $2.4 million. In 1992, actor Johnny Depp paid $15,000 for Kerouac’s old blue raincoat. Kerouac’s last typewriter — a minty-green Hermes 3000 — sold for $22,000.
Other memorabilia — his writing desk and chair, and wooden rocker — are now part of a University of Massachusetts collection in Kerouac’s old home town of Lowell.
As for the bright orange crushed-velour sectional sofa still taking pride of place in the home’s living room? “Sadly, Kerouac never sat on it. No one knows where it came from. But we’ll keep it. Looks good there,” says Burchenal.
But most of the other items do date back to the author’s time: the floral wallpaper in the kitchen, the ornate wrought-iron divider in the hallway, the pastel tiles in the bathrooms, the mirror-polished terrazzo floors.
Burchenal says he’s still working on a plan for the house. Ultimately, he wants to put it under the control of a public trust or non-profit to ensure its long-term protection. He’s also keen to get it designated as a local or national historic landmark.
He has already dismissed thoughts of turning it into a museum, or a bed and breakfast. Wouldn’t be right for the neighborhood, he says.
“We’re having a lot of conversations. But we really only have one motivation, and that’s to preserve the place for posterity.
“In the end, we’re just really excited about owning the house where Jack Kerouac used to live.”
All photos by Howard Walker.