LOWELL — At St. Jean Baptiste Parish, in the heart of The Acre neighborhood, author Jack Kerouac served as an altar boy. The church was also the site of his funeral service when he died in 1969.
As it was for many other French-Canadian immigrants, the now-vacant church was a community center. But the Jack Kerouac Foundation has plans to breathe new life into the church in honor of the famous writer.
The foundation announced its plans earlier this year to convert the church into a museum and performing arts center, retaining much of the historical nature of the building — including its organ — while adding modern elements, like a glass structure.
While very early in the process, the foundation has recently partnered with architecture firm Solomon Corwell Buenz, who created a series of renderings depicting the potential new attraction.
Sylvia Cunha, director of marketing and development of the Jack Kerouac Estate, has been the leading force behind the project, and sees it as an opportunity to revitalize The Acre.
When visiting Lowell and learning more about Kerouac, tourists sometimes don’t know “where to start their Kerouac journey,” Cunha said, but this museum would serve as their central point.
“This is Jack, he’s our guy,” Cunha said. “People like to claim them, but he’s ours.”
The museum, located on the ground floor, would house a number of items related to Kerouac and his legacy, while the other floors of the building would belong to a performance center, complete with an upper balcony and rooftop access. There will also, of course, be a bookstore and café.
Cunha said she anticipates the project to cost up to $15 million.
Bryan Irwin, the principal architect at Solomon Corwell Buenz, said the firm intentionally aimed to create contrast by adding newer-looking design elements to the historic character and façade of the church.
In researching Kerouac and his legacy, Irwin said he recognized the somewhat complicated connection Kerouac had with his hometown and his Catholic upbringing, and he wanted to illustrate that visually in a “play of old and new.”
“It’s quite clear that Lowell was very formative to what made Jack Kerouac Jack Kerouac,” Irwin said. “This idea of trying to express in the design a little bit of tension, something about relationships. Kerouac’s relationship to the church, Kerouac’s relationship to the neighborhood, Kerouac’s relationship to the city and the people he knew growing up.”
Given its location, Irwin said they also plan to engage UMass Lowell in project discussions.
The church was deconsecrated in 2004 and has remained closed since, according to the foundation’s press release.
Preserving the history is important, said Jim Sampas, CEO of the foundation and literary executor of the Jack Kerouac Estate.
“That’s very sacred ground for Jack,” Sampas said of the church. “All we’re looking to do is do it justice and try and create something very welcoming.”
The performance center should be a cultural hub and an opportunity for young to engage with the city’s history, Sampas said.
He said he’s “very, very optimistic” about the process thus far, having received plenty of positive feedback and support from residents, but it’s now “a matter of putting the pieces together.” The performance center, he hopes, can draw young people to the site as both audience members and performers.
“I think it would be incredibly important to not only the church itself and putting something really special at that historic landmark, but also the area,” Sampas said. “I feel like this is going to be an epicenter of creative voices throughout the world and draw in a really large crowd to Lowell.”
State Sen. Ed Kennedy, U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan and other local political leaders “understand the importance” of the museum and have advocated for funding over the last several months, Cunha said.
By engaging young Lowell residents and showing them Kerouac’s legacy, Cunha said they hope to “find the next Jack.”
“It’s such a great artists community already here in Lowell, whether it be Western Ave., whether it be Mill No. 5,” Cunha said. “It’s just such a great community, and to have him and that building just be a part of it.”
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