Wacky house disorients, delights

by Amy Kingsley

It’s not often that I find myself in Kernersville. When I do, it’s usually because I’ve pulled off the highway on the way back from Winston, looking for something fast and fried to tide me over until my next sit-down meal. On those excursions, I usually end up on the wrong side of town, on a four-lane thoroughfare choked with cars, traffic lights and strip malls.

So I was surprised to discover last week that Kernersville has a historic district. It’s on Main Street (they always are), on the other side of the strip malls, and it’s marked by dainty houses with wide porches. Krner’s Folly towers over all these confectionery constructions like a peaked gingerbread monstrosity.

The Folly is a house, although it doesn’t look like any of its neighbors. Jule Krner, an artist, interior decorator, architect and furniture designer built the first iteration of the house in 1880. The designer descended from Jospeh Krner, the namesake of the Winston suburb, according to the Town of Kernersville website. Krner’s forebears were a mixed bag of successful businessmen and artists; he combined both vocations and became famous as a painter of Bull Durham bulls across the South.

For his interior design business, Krner adopted the odd pseudonym Ruebin Rink, and he erected the Folly as a sort of brick-and-mortar catalog. Each room – and there are 22 of them – is unique, featuring doorways that vary in dimension and style, 15 different fireplaces inlaid with encaustic tiles, one-of-a-kind buttresses, columns, capitals, wall and window treatments.

Krner’s furniture was marketed for churches. His bulky designs were given to local craftsmen, who brought the raw wood into the house and constructed the monumental pieces on site. The cabinets and display cases could not be removed from the premises without being dismantled.

When Krner married in 1886, his new wife, Polly Alice Masten, ordered him to relocate the stable that adjoined the three-level house. He obliged and converted the space into a sewing room, library, dressing room and back staircase. When the couple had children, Krner renovated again, dividing formerly high-ceilinged sitting rooms into bedrooms for his children. The resulting playrooms are the most claustrophobic rooms in the Folly, with ceilings that top out at six feet.

As they grew, the Krner children relocated to upstairs bedrooms. The blue room, which was Jule’s son Gilmer’s, was redone in beige brocade silk damask. A mural on the ceiling featured a violin, and on the walls hung paintings done by Gilmer before he embarked on a legal career that took him to Washington, DC and the federal appeals court.

Gilmer’s mother believed in the value of a well-rounded education, and she hired tutors to school her son and his sister in music, theater and fine arts. Appalled that the neighborhood schools taught only reading, writing and arithmetic, Masten organized a junior lyceum, where these same tutors taught children from the community twice a week.

Eventually the lyceum productions outgrew the airy sitting room, which is filled with Krner’s furniture creations. So upstairs in the attic, where the ceiling heights peak at 25 feet, Krner constructed the nation’s first private little theater. The room, known as Cupid’s Park for it’s fanciful murals featuring the infamous cherub, is tucked under the Folly’s steeply pitched roof. An upright piano sits in the orchestra pit once used by the Krner family string quartet. The stage, an octagonal platform that still has its original footlights, is still used by the Kernersville Little Theater for its fall production.

The Folly fell on hard times after Krner died and his children moved away. The abandoned house was slated for demolition in the 1970s when activists intervened and had it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The house has not yet recovered from its decades of deterioration, although the Folly foundation is replacing murals obliterated by the elements. The floor is cracked and uneven in places, and many pieces of furniture are missing knobs and handles that were swiped by thieves.

But decline or no, the Folly is still Kernersville’s premier tourist attraction. In fact, developers trying to capitalize on its prominence are even building townhouses across the street that borrow the name of the eccentric home, if not the home’s actual eccentricity.

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