LOCATION: 414 N. Main Street Wake Forest, NC 27587 CONTACT: 919-556-2911
(CIRCA Magazine – A travel column from the Wake Forest Historical Museum)
Photo courtesy of Michael Blevins Photography
“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.” After visiting Körner’s Folly, you’d be forgiven for thinking German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was contemplating home design when he wrote those words. Crossing the threshold is like stepping into a Victorian dreamscape with ceiling murals, carved balustrades, kissing corners, courting corners and wallpaper made to match elephant hide. The walls are covered in silk damask and the outhouse has four seats. The place vibrates with elegant eccentricity. And I haven’t even mentioned the ropes and pulleys in the attic—yet.
Körner’s Folly is on South Main Street in Kernersville, about a two hour drive from the Triangle. (The town’s name is the Americanized spelling minus the Germanic umlaut.) The journey was manageable, though we were startled at the gravel parking lot when a tourist yelled at us, “You’re in for a treat!” In my experience, those who frequent historic sites are rarely the type to shout at strangers. But Körner’s Folly is different. Jule Körner built the house around 1880 as a showroom for his design portfolio of handcrafted furniture and home décor. And yes, he was a genius. Two years later, he launched the era of modern tobacco advertising.
Noted for his ability as an artist, Körner was hired to market Bull Durham Tobacco across the South. Using the pseudonym “Reubin Rink,” he traveled the rural byways, painting enormous, lifelike bulls on the sides of barns, boulders, and other outdoor structures. To generate interest, he depicted some of these bulls as excessively anatomically correct. In fact, more than a few were graphic enough to alarm the modest, Victorian-era public—just as Körner intended. As the controversy in each offended community reached its peak, Körner would return to “fix” the bulls with a few well-placed brushstrokes. Not coincidentally, this technique generated giant waves of free publicity for Bull Durham Tobacco. (Körner allegedly manipulated the news coverage, writing letters to the editors of local papers.) James B. Duke eventually invited Körner to helm the company’s advertising department in New York City. But Körner declined. He still had the Folly to construct. In fact, even at the end of his life he never considered it complete.
The Folly is a mix of many things: furniture showroom, art studio, entertainment space, family home, and local theater. Legend has it a farmer passed by during its construction and declared, “Surely that will be Jule Körner’s folly.” The words “Körner’s Folly” now appear in tile at the entrance to the main foyer. Another section of tile reads, “Witches Corner.” This is Körner’s nod to the ancient European superstition that dropping a coin in the witches’ pot beside the door keeps evil spirits from secretly slipping inside. This may also contribute to the Folly’s reputation as the “Strangest House in the World.” Truly, it seems pointless to argue.
The self-guided tour embarked upon by visitors is a fascinating journey through the creative mind of Jule Körner, a veritable Körnerland of unexpected twists and turns. Continuously rebuilt, repurposed, and expanded over Körner’s lifetime (he died in 1924 at age 73), the property reflects both his imaginative style and the zany pace of technological progress in the early twentieth century. The main foyer was once a carriageway for horses. The stables were turned into a library and the hayloft became an apartment for the children’s governess. The house has 22 rooms on three floors with seven different levels. Ceiling heights range from playhouse to cathedral. No two doors or windows are alike. Below the roof, a formal theater in the attic is equipped with a trapdoor for hoisting up a grand piano during musical numbers (hence the need for ropes and pulleys). My research is murky, but I’m fairly certain this is the only attic in the world with a retractable piano.
Unfortunately, not even attic theaters can last forever. As the century wore on, the house grew too expensive to maintain. After World War II, the Körner descendants were forced to shut down the Folly. It stood vacant for decades, its windows boarded, its 15 fireplaces crumbling, and its 10,000 feet of bead molding steadily disintegrating. In 1971, a group of local families came together to purchase the property and save it from demolition. That’s when the real work began. Körner’s Folly is now on the National Register of Historic Places and run by a foundation committed to a massive, ongoing restoration project aimed at preserving the home while keeping it open for the education and enjoyment of the public.
Frankly, it’s kind of a love affair between the public and this house. Apart from the shouting woman in the parking lot, we encountered dozens of sightseers during our short visit. Tours begin at the Aunt Dealy Cottage, a smaller home directly behind the Folly and constructed for the woman who raised Körner after his mother died. Born a slave, Aunt Dealy worked as a nanny and remained with the family after emancipation. Upon her death in 1896, Jule Körner purchased a strip of land outside the “white” cemetery so Aunt Dealy and the Körners could be buried together. Her cottage is where tickets and gifts are sold. You’ll also view a short film—which, I should probably mention, is about ten minutes long and features extended historical narratives delivered by talking puppets.
Because of course it does. This is Körner’s Folly, and whimsy is a target everyone can see.
Körner’s Folly is virtually roadside and easy to find. Going west on Highway I-40, switch to I-40 Business approaching Kernersville and take the South Main Street exit. The home is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10am to 3pm, and on Sunday from 1-5pm, with tickets $10 for adults and $6 for children. You can learn more about Körner’s Folly at http://www.kornersfolly.org.