A beautiful old villa in the medieval French town of Saint-Paul de Vence faces demolition soon, but there is a strong push to preserve it, namely because its last inhabitant was the influential American writer James Baldwin.
Baldwin moved to the house in 1970 to find a peaceful refuge from the hostility he faced in the U.S. because of his race and homosexuality. From this refuge, amidst palm trees and orange trees, he could see the Alps to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. Most importantly, he could do his writing.
During his time living in the South of France, Baldwin received visitors like Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald. Bill Cosby sent him roses on his birthday, adding a rose every year. Baldwin’s Swiss lover, Lucien Happersberger, lived in the gatehouse, and the modernist painter Beauford Delaney made the property a second home, often painting in the garden.
Though parts of the villa are already gone or crumbling, the writing room remains. In the yard there is a patch of lawn where a table once stood around which Baldwin would talk with friends late at night. That table inspired the title of Baldwin’s unfinished play about an African American living in the South of France, The Welcome Table.
Baldwin never owned the house, but was in the process of buying it at the time of his death. He became close friends with his landlady, Jeanne Faure, and Baldwin’s family believes that she wanted him to have the house after her death. He died first, though, in December of 1987. The house now belongs to a developer who plans to tear it down and build condos on the land.
Many have made pilgrimages to the house, especially American writers living in France. Memoirist Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote in The New Yorker about his adventure past the chain-link fence that now protects the property, and novelist Shannon Cain squatted in the house to keep it from being torn down. Some groups are continuing the fight—which will likely be an uphill battle—to preserve the property and turn it into a writers’ retreat.
Update February, 2018: Construction at the site has begun, and two wings of the villa have been demolished. The site is closed to the public. Activists are making a final effort to save the house. The current plan is for the historic home to be preserved, but absorbed by a luxury apartment complex.