On the (long, bumpy) Road to Preservation

December 11, 2020

Known as “The King of the Beats,” Jack Kerouac was one of history’s most influential American writers. His spontaneous, free-form writings, such as On the Road, spawned the hippie movement and continue to influence American culture—including music, art, and literature—to this day.

For well over a decade, preservationists have been trying to save the house where Kerouac spent the last few years of his life, right here in St. Petersburg’s Disston Heights neighborhood. A number of times, the community thought the house was lost and demolition was a real possibility.

Over 50 years after Kerouac’s death in St. Anthony's hospital, his heirs sold the house to Frank Viggiano, a local real estate investor specialized in flipping houses, and the efforts to preserve the house were assumed lost once again. As the community feared the worst, Viggiano completed much needed repairs while keeping the historic integrity of the house intact before reselling the home—including furnishings originally owned by the Kerouac estate as part of the listing.

Dr. Ken Burchenal, a former professor at The University of Texas-Austin with a PhD in American Literature says, "Whatever one thinks of his writing, no one disputes Kerouac's importance to the history of American culture." While in Austin, Ken's wife Gina was a leader in the Austin food and wine scene, owning a restaurant and catering company. She closed down the business and the couple moved back to the St. Petersburg area in 2017.

Recently, the Burchenals sold their family’s Odessa citrus grove. These days, most citrus groves across Florida are unable to make a profit selling citrus, and many landowners are selling to developers. Rather than selling to developers, the Burchenals instead struck a deal with Hillsborough County which will turn the 300-acre citrus grove into an environmental preserve.

Nobody knew that preserving this piece of land would, in turn, lead to the preservation of an historic property.

When Ken and Gina heard there was an open house for the Kerouac property, they decided to take a look the next day. They were intrigued by the history, and at the same time, pleasantly surprised at the high level and care of the renovations. Seventy-two hours after they first became aware of the house, they put in an offer that was quickly accepted. After the initial shock, they began meeting with people in the community who had been working on preserving Kerouac’s legacy.

Preserve the ’Burg stepped up to give them guidance and offer assistance.

For their immediate plans, the Burchenals have secured a fellow PhD (in English Literature) as a tenant - a professional writer who is not only sympathetic to the home's cultural significance, but will also act as a caretaker of the property and its legacy.

They will seek both local and National historic landmark status, while continuing to speak to local stakeholders such as Preserve the ’Burg and the Kerouac estate, to develop a sustainable plan to preserve the house for the public. As the Burchenals told The Tampa Bay Times, their ideas for use of the property include using it for literary events and as a writer's retreat. There are no plans to make the home a museum, as this doesn't fit into the landscape of the quiet Disston Heights neighborhood.

Ken stated, “the only real long-term goal is to make sure that the house remains intact for public use in perpetuity.”

As big money developers are rapidly changing the landscape of our city, it’s good to know that there are people out there like Ken and Gina who want to help keep St. Pete special.

And wouldn’t the Kerouac house make for a great Preserve the ’Burg porch party some day?

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