Jessica Kinnison says that people are always wanting to come inside her St. Roch home.
"Some folks still come by and are like, ‘I can come in, right?’" she says. Her usual response is, "‘No, not right now—but later. Why don’t you tell me what your name is first?"
Her neighbors aren’t being rude; they’re just drawn to the space that has a history of being, as Kinnison says, "a place where people came to build community and get nourishment." First it was the neighborhood bakery, then it was a daycare (according to neighbors), and later a part-time art venue. And now the space—formerly a barebones, concrete vault—is Kinnison’s warm, but open, home that plays hosts to friends, family and a monthly literary event.
A Jackson, Mississippi native, Kinnison moved to New Orleans in 2004 to attend Loyola University. Even when she moved to Pittsburgh to go to grad school at Chatham University, she had one foot planted firmly in New Orleans: She kept an apartment on Royal Street (her friends subleased it), she had a partner here, and she even chose New Orleans over Iceland when it came time to do a field placement.
"From the start, I said I’m coming here to do one thing, and then coming home. I always had in mind, ‘I can’t wait to bring what I’m learning back home.’" For her grad school program, Kinnison ran a creative writing program in a county jail, which is similar to what she does now in her work with the nonprofit Project Lazarus.
She planned to buy a home in New Orleans before she left for grad school, and when she returned home full-time, a real estate agent took her to see properties every weekend. She says the agent showed her mostly condos or "safe, practical things," but she was looking for something a little different:
Specifically, a writing community. While in her fiction writing program at Chatham, she heard people reminisce about the legendary Gist Street literary series held at the home/studio of sculptor James Simon, which ended in 2010.
"Hundreds of people would come, eat pie, drink, have fun and read," Kinnison, who also is the director of the Loyola Writing Institute, says. "Everyone would talk about it, and I thought, ‘Aw man, I wanna do that when I get home.’"
It was on a walk through St. Roch when she noticed a small "for sale by owner" sign on a home.
As it is today, the space was nondescript from the outside; she was dying to know what was beyond the vault-like facade. She got her agent to arrange a showing.
At the time art impresario Kirsha Kaechele, who had a memorable stint in post-Katrina New Orleans before decamping to Tasmania, owned the property and used it as a residence and art space. Long before that, the space was the St. Roch Bakery. Somewhere in between, Kinnison’s neighbors tell her the space served as a daycare of sorts (she can’t find any records to support this, though).
Unlike the places her agent was showing her, the house in St. Roch was decidedly non-practical: The "kitchen" was a single gas burner and sink behind a big wooden bar in the front room, there was no insulation, no rooms, and most incredibly—a huge ficus tree was growing inside, sprouting up from the concrete floor ("I loved the tree," Kinnison admits. "But my mortgage company made me take it out.").
At this point, Kinnison says, the house was an "open, concrete space," but she saw the potential. "The second I saw it I knew," she says.
The house did come with some great things, though. The main bathroom is big with high ceilings, allowing for an open floor plan with a standalone shower and clawfoot tub; there's also a bidet. Outside there’s some citrus and palm trees, and Jessica added a hammock and eclectic mix of furniture.
While her family helped her make the space more practical, the space retains its openness and a good dose of whimsy. Big, sliding barn doors, which Jessica keeps open when she’s not sleeping, separate the master bedroom from the living room, and the bar and seating area up front that came with the house have been spruced up. But now there’s a real kitchen, plus two additional rooms and a second small bathroom, and it’s comfortable in all seasons thanks to central air and insulation.
When it comes to decor, Kinnison has a laid-back approach. The self-proclaimed "thrift store junkie" didn’t buy a single piece of furniture for her house, besides a red couch that she found for $100 at the Habitat For Humanity ReStore. The rest of her furniture pieces are family hand-me-downs, and most of her art and objects were found at thrift stores or while traveling. She also likes to collect records, and she has a lot of books.
Most importantly, Kinnison got what she wanted as far as community goes. She hosts the monthly Dogfish literary series at her home, where friends and strangers drink wine by the wooden bar, congregate in the boho-lounge seating area, or gather outside. They listen to music and readings in the living room, and drift on over to the kitchen, where there’s always homemade comfort food. The open home that’s filled with loved objects makes for a cozy, but convivial, location for the series.
Sometimes, she needs to draw a line when this place needs to revert back to a home after hosting a public event. But overall, Kinnison seems to love her open, inviting space, which she considers to be "larger than her."
"I think of it as a fluid space—it’s not just mine, it’s all of ours," she says. "I’ve always wanted a space like this, so why not indulge in it?"