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Creating Korner's Folly, 'The Strangest Home in the World'

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Exterior of the Folly. Photo courtesy of Michael Blevins Photography.
Exterior of the Folly. Photo courtesy of Michael Blevins Photography.

Built in 1880 and once billed as "The Strangest Home in the World," Körner's Folly in Kernersville, N.C. celebrated its 135th anniversary last Saturday. But it is not really a home in the conventional sense. Artist, decorator, interior designer, and "Man of a Thousand Peculiarities" Jule Gilmer Körner conceived of this structure as an entertaining space, bachelor quarters, horse stables, studio and—most importantly—showroom for the wares of his Reuben Rink Decorating and House Furnishing Company.

Today, the population of Kernersville is approximately 23,000, but when Körner finished the Folly in 1880, the town was home to 200 people. Heading toward historic downtown Kernersville, you pass the usual suspects of Southern suburban America—CVS, Walmart, Hibachi Grill, Cookout, Biscuitville, and several gas stations—but soon you leave these reminders of the present behind. The Folly is situated right up against South Main Street, as a business would have been in the late nineteenth century, in all its now-anomalous Victorian grandeur.

The Folly stands 100 feet high, with a "privy," or outhouse, also on the property. It was built with eight different sizes of bricks, which were made on the premises. The sheer variety of building materials was only one aspect of the variety that defined the house. From the outside, the Folly doesn't look particularly odd—until you notice its six chimneys. These are the first sign of what will also characterize the interior: endless options, designed to tempt the customer.

In 1785, Körner's grandfather Joseph left his town of Furtwangen in the Black Forest region of Germany, where he had been working as a business representative for a manufacturer and dealer in clocks, and moved to the Friedland settlement in central North Carolina, several miles south of present-day Kernersville. He established a business making watches and clocks, ran an inn, and eventually acquired more than 1,000 acres of land that he passed on to his three children—Salome, Johann Frederick, and Philip—when he died at the age of 61. Jule Gilmer was born in 1851, the last of Philip's eleven children. He was educated in art in Philadelphia and set up a business in Cincinnati as an artist and designer, but when his father died in 1875, he returned to Kernersville.

The Folly struck people as odd when it was under construction. The name came from a passing farmer's exclamation that the building would prove to be "Körner's Folly," but Körner wasn't offended—in fact, he loved the name. As with many histories in North Carolina, his is bound up in the tobacco industry, which prepared him to take on the Folly by honing both his appetite for controversy and his advertising skills. For several years in the early 1880s, he painted outdoor billboards for Durham's Blackwell Tobacco Company, manufacturer of Bull Durham products. The advertisements, which were sometimes as large as 80 x 150 feet and appeared on barns, buildings, and boulders all across the country, were known for their anatomically correct bulls, which some found scandalous. Körner seems to have enjoyed this. In fact, he even wrote letters to the local paper, posing as miffed young women and demanding the removal of the ads.

Having advertised someone else's product in the past, he was more than prepared to advertise his own. "Reuben Rink," the pseudonym he had used to sign his bull advertisements, became the name of his interior design business. The Folly would be his ultimate marketing tool. When Körner devised this unique showroom, most of Kernersville's residents would have selected decorating materials from catalogues and printed advertisements. Körner took the catalog and made it a physical space. Where catalogs had transformed the real into representation, he transformed representations back into the real.

His customers were wealthy, and they sought large pieces to suit their large houses—not unlike today's suburban consumers who fetishize the space-filling designs of mass producers such as Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware. (Approximately 90 percent of the furniture in the house today is original.) The enormous floor-to-ceiling buffet in the dining room was built in the room and has not been moved since. He also stocked the Folly with wallpaper books, fabric swatches, and other materials that customers could peruse. Ultimately, these materials could be compiled into custom sketches, a movement back to representation after the client had absorbed all the options the Folly had to offer.

And the options proliferated. The house had multiple levels and ceiling heights ranging from five-and-a-half to 25 feet. Every doorway and window was unique. Murals were painted on walls, ceilings, and even the undersides of staircases. Fifteen fireplaces showcased tiles of different colors and designs by both Körner and the American Encaustic Tile Company in Zanesville, OH (likely ordered from their New York showrooms). The carved woodwork throughout the interior represented Körner's signature patterns that could be arranged in different combinations: roping, beading, and egg and dart. The wainscoting alone contains approximately 10,000 feet of bead molding, all of which was carved by hand. Even the utilitarian cellar was outfitted with tile and other decorative motifs, and some of the mosaic patterns on the floors mimicked carpeting or rugs and can also be found on the porches, which were added in 1906.

The reception room upstairs was designed for social events, complete with conversation chairs and corners draped in green curtains to hide canoodling couples. Körner liked to entertain, and welcoming customers into the Folly was another form of hospitality, albeit a more commercial one. The house was peculiarly positioned between the public and the private, and it partook of both. Körner anticipated the customer's desires and attempted to answer them by offering plenitude. Would you like this fireplace? Or this one? Or perhaps something that combines the two? Each room suggested infinite combinations of elements: wallpaper, carvings, furniture, curtains, carpets, and tapestries.

You feel this infiniteness walking around the house, too—the sense that you could set off in any direction. Located in the center of what is now the foyer, the dining room leads off to several rooms. The house does not rigidly direct movement; it opens up the possibility for seemingly endless wanderings. These wanderings would have been part of the customer's creative process, as he or she was set free in space.

The Folly represented not only the virtually limitless desires of the consumer, but also Körner's own desires. As a personal space, the house was constantly evolving; it was never finished. He desired alteration, change, dynamism. This took on both major and minor forms. The house was remodeled twice—once in 1890 and again in 1906. The central space into which visitors enter today was formerly the carriageway. The stables were located on the right of the home and the original eleven rooms on the left. But when Körner married Polly Alice Masten in 1886, he found that she wasn't keen on keeping horses in the house. The horses were moved across the street, and the stables were converted into another eleven rooms, including the foyer, dining room, breakfast room, sewing room, library, long room, and dressing room for Polly.

Today, ghostly cutouts of their children Jule Gilmer, Jr. and Alice Doré stand in the playroom, which was created by dividing the 16-foot high smoking room in two. (Körner was terrified of fire and, despite his background with Bull Durham, only allowed smoking in this room.) He was constantly repurposing rooms or altering them, dividing some—like this one—from ceiling to floor and others from wall to wall. He painted murals and then tired of them and covered them with wainscoting. He shifted furniture from one room to another and then back again. He moved paintings from one wall to another. Today, many of his paintings hang where they did in old photographs, but these images can only capture one moment of the house's existence; he may have changed something the next day.

In its constant revisions, the Folly was a prophetic embodiment of what would become an important value of the American suburb: the perfectibility of the domestic sphere. But for Körner, that end point was always deferred. There was always something else to change or improve—to keep the horizon of the complete at bay. The antithesis of a showroom in a contemporary department store, the Folly suggests that decorating and design are never-ending processes.


The theater on the upper level, which Polly Körner used for her Juvenile Theater. Photo courtesy of Michael Blevins Photography.

Always absorbing the outside world into the home, Körner also converted the uppermost level of the house from a billiards room to a theater, where Polly ran the Juvenile Lyceum Theater, which she opened in 1896. She taught theater, music, the performing arts, and etiquette to local children in this exquisite garret decorated with murals. Many of the home's murals were painted by Caesar Milch, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Art in Berlin who worked with Körner and lived with the family for 35 years until his death in 1922. His six cherub-themed murals in the theater represented fantastical worlds; Korner's own Dutch seascapes on the staircase were based on his travels in the real world. This combination seems fitting for a performance space.

Körner's Folly continues to be a project. A bowl of plastic fruit on the kitchen counter proclaims its refusal to decay, but the house hasn't been so lucky. Its chipped plaster and peeling paint are reminders of the passage of time. After Jule and Polly died in 1924 and 1934 respectively, daughter Doré used the Folly as a summer house, but the house was boarded up after World War II and sat for decades, battered and bruised by the elements. Most of the textiles were lost. Tree roots grew through the foundation and floor of the breakfast room, cracking and shifting the mosaic tile. In the 1970s, the building was almost torn down.

The house is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and receives support from individuals and businesses, as well as grants from private and government agencies. The Körner's Folly Foundation, which was formed in 1995 with assistance from Preservation North Carolina, has a volunteer board of directors and a full-time executive director. The Foundation's offices are located in the non-historic section of another structure on the property: "Aunt Dealy Cottage" (1885), the home of Clara, an emancipated slave who raised Körner after his mother's death and also worked as the family's cook.

Now that the house has undergone several structural updates—a new foundation, new porches, and a new roof—the Foundation is turning to interior work. To restore a house that was in constant flux poses unique challenges. How do you identify a moment to which to return? The period of interpretation selected for the interior restoration is c. 1897-1905, when the family was most active and before the children left home. As Director Dale Pennington noted, what is now the Rose Room (one of the bedrooms) was first green, and then beige, before Jule painted it pink for Doré's sixteenth birthday. So the term "Rose Room" only begins to get at the various incarnations of this space. Each room, hallway, staircase, and nook is a palimpsest, still a record of Körner's understanding of his house as a living thing.

—Photo credits: Photo of Jule Gilmer Körner courtesy of Körner's Folly Foundation. Photo of the Körner's Folly sofa by Susan Harlan. Sketch of a reception room by the Reuben Rink Company courtesy of Körner's Folly Foundation.
· Official site: Körner's Folly [kornersfolly.org]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]