St. Pete Spotlight: Jack Kerouac's final home could become museum

An effort is underway to turn the Beat author's final home into a museum.

The king of the Beat Generation spent the final years of his life in St. Petersburg. Jack Kerouac lived next door before purchasing the brick residence at 5169 10th Ave. N.

An effort to turn that Disston Heights property into a museum is gaining steam. Kerouac's nephew, John Shen Sampas, assumed ownership of the home in March after his father passed away. Sampas told the Tampa Bay Times he’s on board with the museum mission and wants to honor the author of “On the Road.”

That’s a goal Margaret Murray has spent years working toward. Murray is secretary of a nonprofit called Friends of the Jack Kerouac House.

“Our mission is to preserve and maintain the home and make sure that Kerouac’s history in St. Petersburg is disseminated … focusing on the solitude that he sought here and focusing on the works that he did create while he was here.” Murray said. “One of the most interesting things about Kerouac’s life here is that it’s a snapshot of his life but it also really sheds a light on what St. Pete was like in the 1960s.”

Earlier this month the nonprofit presented a proposal to Sampas. Murray told the Times the University of South Florida, Dalí Museum and St. Petersburg Preservation support the mission.

Without any publicity, fans already flock to the home, leaving Kerouac notes in the mailbox, Murray said. “Having artifacts and a place to really talk about his history, I think it would be a huge draw,” she added. “I feel that this could be a unique draw to St. Petersburg.”

Seeking solace in Florida

Kerouac struggled handling fame after the 1957 publication of “On the Road” turned him into a celebrity and eventually a cult icon. “He came here to get away from the fame that erupted around him … He did see this as a place of solitude,” Murray said. “He was a very troubled man.”

The author first moved to St. Petersburg in 1964, Murray said. He stayed for several years before moving to a house on Cape Cod. Murray said he came back – this time to 5169 10th Ave. N – in September 1968. He purchased the home for $50,000, she said.

It’s said Kerouac described St. Pete as “a good place to come die.” The author, an alcoholic, lived with his third wife, Stella, and his mother, Gabrielle-Ange, who was paralyzed.

Kerouac succumbed to the effects of cirrhosis in October 1969. He’d also struggled with an untreated hernia and injuries sustained in a bar fight, the Times reports.

Kerouac’s St. Pete of a bygone era

St. Petersburg has grown in the decades since Kerouac died, with a thriving arts community that would’ve embraced the novelist and poet.

“If he would have lived out his natural life here he would have been revered as an author … In the late 60s St. Petersburg wasn’t used to having luminaries in their midst,” Murray said. “St. Petersburg is known now as a destination for the arts.”

Kerouac frequented the Tic-Toc Lounge & Package and the Ideal Cocktail Lounge, both of which are gone. Gone too are his other known hangouts, the Wild Boar in Tampa, the Beaux Arts Gallery in Pinellas Park and the original Cactus Bar.

In 1969 a friend wheeled Kerouac’s mother down 10th Street to 49th Street N and 9th Avenue N so she could attend her son’s wake at the John Rhodes Funeral Home. That spot is now home to a Walgreens.

There are some glimpses of the St. Pete Kerouac knew. He went to Haslam’s Book Store and put his own works near the front door for more prominent display.

Perhaps Kerouac’s memory is felt most keenly at The Flamingo Sports Bar on 9th Street N. Owner Dale Nichols said he returned from Vietnam in 1967 and soon became a drinking buddy of Kerouac’s. He even thinks he may have been the last bartender to serve Kerouac.

“(He) kind of kept a low profile … was someone to party with at the time,” Nichols said.

The Flamingo offers a "Jack Kerouac special" — a shot and a beer wash – and displays article clippings and photos. Outside, there’s a mural and photo of a young Kerouac, with dark hair, piercing eyes and a stoic expression. That wasn’t the Kerouac Flamingo patrons knew, as years of alcoholism had taken their toll.

The home’s future

The home has not been regularly lived in since the 1970s. Stella Stampas Kerouac moved out after her mother-in-law died in 1973. She herself died in 1990, leaving the home to her family.

The question now is what creating a museum will take.

Volunteers will need to assess the condition of the residence, and work with engineers, architects and museum designers. They’ll have to honor a balance between preserving a historic home and creating a museum.

Sampas told the Times he’s not sure how much he’ll ask for. The house’s worth is listed at $128,832 by the Pinellas County Property Appraiser. Zillow lists the value as $245,064.

Murray said several funders have expressed interest and there are grants available. “It will be challenging but we can certainly raise the money,” she said.

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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